Jump Rhythm Jazz Project

February 18, 2010

Jump Rhythm Jazz Project
The Dance Center

Columbia College Chicago

February 18–20, 2010

Reviewed by Wendy Perron

Billy Siegenfeld and Amanda Benzin in
Why Gershwin? Photo by William Frederking.


Billy Siegenfeld is one of a kind. Moving and vocalizing as though playing drums, he can reach a place of unabashed entertainment or poignant character portrayal.

At this concert marking the 20th anniversary of his company, JRJP, Siegenfeld came out to welcome us, inviting our participation in his lively scat-type vocalizing—gasps, sighs, hiccups, erupting from deep in the body. The choreography, based on this percussive style, also draws on jazz and tap. His 10 dancers revel in the complex rhythms, making the audience giddy.

The first piece, I Hear Music (2001), was a delight as the dancers broke down familiar songs like “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” into small syncopated bytes, throwing in a soupcon of tap dance.

The two premieres began well but lost focus. You Do Not Have to Be Good opened as a trio for three tough women who attacked the air with karate chops, wearing nicely funky costumes by Jeffery Hancock. One woman became gloomy and another tried to comfort her—or was she challenging her? It was an emotional moment, but the piece never regained the kinetic excitement of that opening trio.

In Why Gershwin?, Siegenfeld swayed and bopped in his own world, dimly aware of Amanda Benzin softly shifting under a different light. They danced haltingly together, each unfurling the other at arm’s length. Just when you thought they might get romantic, a quartet of silly cupids rushed in to distract them.

Kevin Durnbaugh’s engaging Shot in the Dark (2008) was a clever rap routine about the history of rhythm. His refrain, “Rhythm is the limit and the measure of time, in your body and mind,” alternated with bits of songs like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”

Siegenfeld’s five-part God of Dirt (2007) mixed Zorba the Greek with Fiddler on the Roof in a rousing folk dance for the whole company. Women wore long skirts and boots and men wore vests. Occasionally a dancer mimed fiddling—with, of course, crazy accents breaking up each stroke. Siegenfeld’s salt-of-the-earth persona spread to the group, but his tango duet with Brandi Coleman, associate artistic director of JRJP, was a highlight.

Poppy and Lou
(2000), the simplest of the dances, was also the most affecting. Siegenfeld looked like a nutty professor enjoying a cozy step-turn with his spunky wife, performed by Coleman. They partner-danced to Blossom Dearie’s quaint rendition of “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” They lifted each other and got stuck, cranking back up. Finally she waved good-bye to him and walked toward the light. When he realized she was gone for good, his whole upper body suddenly sagged. Poppy and Lou is a sweet dance that tugged the heartstrings.

All the performers had great spirit and individuality. Coleman stood out for her assurance and dramatic flair. When she danced with Siegenfeld, it was bliss.