Melanie George Brings Her Jazz Roots to Her Work as a Dramaturg, Scholar and More

August 12, 2021

Melanie George’s career has been defined by multiplicity. Widely known as one of the most in-demand dramaturgs in the dance field, she is also a choreographer, a scholar and an educator. In 2012, she founded Jazz is… Dance Project, dedicated to the dissemination of jazz-dance education, choreography, performance and scholarship. She’s been a scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow since 2019, and last August she added associate curator to her CV. Appointed alongside Ali Rosa-Salas, she joined executive and artistic director Pamela Tatge and producing director Ariana Massery on the curatorial team, allowing her to make a direct impact on Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s programming.

“A lot of my career, I have been walking into situations that are a leap of faith grounded in improvisation grounded in jazz identity,” George says. “People ask, ‘Hey would you want to do this?’ Even though I’ve never done it before, I’m willing to try.”

How would you describe your movement home—as Jawole Willa Jo Zollar calls it, your mother tongue?

My movement home is rhythm, musicality, instinctive Blackness, and there is some whimsy in there. My movement home is also my musical home. I wanted to be a musician before I wanted to be a dancer. I know dance through music.

I attended the dramaturgy talk you hosted for Gibney and I was struck by the many definitions of dramaturgy and entry points into the work.

The disparateness of entry points is so varied because dramaturgy doesn’t have a rightful home in dance yet. If you don’t teach people how to value dramaturgy, they don’t budget for it; it is a hidden labor a lot of times. Almost everyone needs a dramaturg. The lone-genius model no longer exists; in the most top-down environments, there is still collaborative dancemaking happening.

Tell me about your role as co-curator at Jacob’s Pillow.

Collectively, we have good energy: Ali and I are very different. That’s what makes us work. Rounding it out with Pam, who has institutional knowledge, and Ariana understands systems, checks and balances. Working as a curatorial team is new for them too! There is a grace in all of our learning curves.

I appreciate the fact that I get to continue to be a scholar in residence and an outside eye for Pillow Lab residents. My real strength is artist relationships. My dramaturgical practice informs my curatorial practice. I didn’t have to sacrifice one identity for another.

What is in the works for Jazz is… Dance Project?

Jazz is… received a New York Public Library grant for the Jazz in the Margins project in 2022. The Woodshed, my weeklong professional-development retreat for seasoned jazz-dance choreographers and educators, will also return in 2022.

The Uprooted film drew a lot of interest to Jazz is… along with many amazing, beautiful artists who are leading a charge to bring jazz back to its roots. What is exciting is that jazz-dance artists who are siloed are coming together. Collective is the only way forward.

What is bringing you joy and ease?

I still love and am inspired by art all the time. I wanted an artistic life when I was 8 and I have an artistic life! Fame was so fundamental to me as a kid, and I was in a movie [Uprooted] with Debbie Allen last summer. That multiplicity? Prince, Debbie Allen and David Bowie taught it to me. I do my own version of that