Bridging the Gap: Connecting Musical Theater and Contemporary Dance

Bridging the Gap: Connecting Musical Theater and Contemporary Dance

Stepping into the Jazz Lounge

I still vividly remember the day I found myself in that stuffy conference room, surrounded by my fellow students, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a tenure-track candidate. Little did I know that what was supposed to be a routine Q&A session would turn into a profound lesson about the importance of bridging the gap between our differences.

As the candidate entered the room, a passionate Latina student launched into a scathing critique of our university’s lack of diversity and inclusivity. Her words were laced with frustration, and her tone was unrelenting. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of discomfort, watching this airing of our “dirty laundry” in front of a stranger. My own educational journey had been incredibly transformative, and I felt a deep sense of gratitude and respect for my professors. So, when the opportunity arose, I spoke up, sharing my perspective.

“I’m surprised to hear such a negative opinion,” I said, my voice betraying a touch of nervousness. “My experience here has been really different from that.”

The response I received, however, was far from what I had expected. My peer dismissed my comments with a wave of her hand and a scoff, “Of course it has. Look at you.”

In that moment, I felt the weight of my identity as a white, non-disabled, middle-class, heterosexual, theist male crash down on me. The realization that my “default homogeneity” had rendered my perspective irrelevant was a bitter pill to swallow. I was stunned, then hurt, then angry – a microcosm of the polarization that is tearing through our society.

As I look back on that incident, I can’t help but see it as a wakeup call, a vivid illustration of the urgent need to bridge the gap between our differences. If we, as a collective, continue to fail at the critical task of connecting across divides, how can we hope to work together, to live together, to thrive together?

Honoring the Jazz Tradition

The world of musical theater and contemporary dance is not immune to this challenge. In fact, it is a realm where the divide between tradition and innovation, between past and present, can be particularly pronounced. But what if we could find a way to not just acknowledge, but to celebrate, the rich heritage of jazz dance while embracing the boundless creativity of contemporary expression?

Enter the Musical Theater Center, a beacon of hope in this endeavor. Through their dedication to bridging the gap between musical theater and contemporary dance, they are not only preserving the legacy of a quintessentially American art form, but also paving the way for a future where the boundaries between genres blur, and the shared language of movement, rhythm, and expression takes center stage.

At the heart of this mission is the work of artists like Kimberley Cooper, the artistic director of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks (DJD) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Kimberley has been with DJD since 1989, first as a dancer, then as a resident choreographer and artistic associate, and now as the artistic director since 2013. Her dedication to creating awareness and respect for the integrity, spirit, and traditions of jazz dance is truly inspiring.

But Kimberley is not alone in her quest. Across the border, in the bustling city of Newport, Rhode Island, Salve Regina University’s dance program is taking a bold step forward by creating a festival dedicated to the celebration of jazz dance in conversation with jazz music. Curated by jazz dance artists and scholars from the United States and Canada, this three-day festival aims to bridge the gap that is often perceived between these two closely-linked art forms.

Embracing the Rhythm of Change

At the heart of this endeavor is the belief that jazz dance and jazz music are inextricably linked, sharing a common language of rhythm, improvisation, and a deep-rooted connection to the African-American experience. By acknowledging and honoring this heritage, the Musical Theater Center and its partners are not only preserving a vital part of our cultural legacy but also paving the way for a more inclusive and equitable future.

One of the key figures at the forefront of this movement is Lindsay Guarino, a jazz dance artist, educator, and scholar. As the professor and chair of the Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance at Salve Regina University, Lindsay has been instrumental in growing the institution’s dance program from a minor to a vibrant BA focused on jazz and social justice.

“Jazz dance is thriving at Salve Regina University through an undergraduate program concentrated in jazz dance and social justice,” Lindsay explains. “We acknowledge and honor jazz as a historically Black American art form best understood through awareness of one’s own identity and culture. Community is at the heart of our dance program, with an environment that encourages and supports individuality, personal creativity, dynamic exchanges of energy, risk-taking, and resilience – all enduring values within the jazz aesthetic.”

This holistic approach to dance education is echoed by Brandi Coleman, an assistant professor of dance at Southern Methodist University. Brandi’s expertise in Jump Rhythm Technique, a jazz-rhythm-based movement approach that transforms the moving body into a rhythm-driven percussion instrument, underscores the deep connections between music and dance.

“By breaking boundaries with Evergreen, Julius Rodriguez has lived up to the true spirit of jazz by ushering it towards the future freely,” Brandi observes. “This is the kind of fluidity and innovation that we aim to cultivate in our students, connecting the rich heritage of jazz with the boundless creativity of contemporary expression.”

Dancing Towards a Brighter Future

As I reflect on my experience in that stuffy conference room, I’m reminded of the power of empathy and the importance of truly listening to one another. It’s easy to get caught up in our own narratives, to view the world through the lens of our own experiences, but the real challenge lies in stepping outside of ourselves and embracing the perspectives of others.

That’s what the Musical Theater Center and its partners are doing – they’re creating spaces where the diverse voices and experiences of the dance community can come together, where the traditions of the past can inform the innovations of the future, and where the divides that once seemed insurmountable can be bridged through the universal language of movement.

From the vibrant jazz dance festivals in Newport to the cutting-edge collaborations in Calgary, the message is clear: the time has come to celebrate the rich tapestry of our cultural heritage while also embracing the transformative power of change. It’s a journey that requires courage, empathy, and a willingness to step outside of our comfort zones, but the rewards are boundless.

As I walk away from that conference room, I carry with me a renewed sense of purpose and a deep appreciation for the work being done at the intersections of musical theater and contemporary dance. The path forward may not be easy, but with the guidance of visionary leaders and the support of a community that values diversity, equity, and inclusion, I’m confident that we can overcome the challenges that lie ahead and emerge stronger, more connected, and more resilient than ever before.

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