BY: DELLIA RISMAY
Raw energy. Blissful. Unique.
These are just some of the words Natasha Powell, the artistic director and choreographer behind FLOOR’D uses to describe the upcoming world premiere of the first full-length work performed by Holla Jazz. Ringing in International Jazz Day, Toronto’s only vernacular jazz dance company will be performing from April 25th-28th at the Winchester Street Theatre in the heart of the city. With the help of the show’s performers and musical director Gerald Heslop, audiences will be transported to black dance halls during the emancipation era and the heyday of jook.
Through group choreography, improvisation, duets and more, seven dancers and eight live musicians will embody the spirit of jazz and blues music. “There’s these different ways that the dancers are connecting to themselves, and connecting to each other, and connecting with the music,” Powell says.
One can trace the roots of jook to West Africa; during the emancipation era, honoring their traditions, black Americans set up dance halls, also known as honky-tonks and after-hours joints. The jook laid the groundwork for several forms of music and dance, including the shimmy and the Charleston. However, Powell says that in many dance studios, jazz music is often displayed to blend more Eurocentric styles. She believes it is of utmost importance that people know, understand, and appreciate where so much of our music came from. “I truly believe that jazz and the blues is a by-product of the African-American experience, for blacks in the states, and having to overcome unbearable circumstances: slavery, segregation. Trying to assimilate, basically, into a new environment in North America, being taken from West African countries.”
Blues and jazz music were used as tools to cope with the harsh realities they faced, to help uplift their spirits, and to serve as a release. That’s why Powell wants people to truly acknowledge the source of these music genres. “I believe it’s really important for people to understand that as much as we enjoy jazz, it’s actually a by-product of a reality that people, black Americans specifically, faced in the United States. We’re able to kind of now enjoy the culture that they actually created while they went through really hard times. So, for me, I try to share that as much as I can […] sometimes that stuff can get lost. While we’re enjoying the dance, thinking it’s part of popular culture, we can’t forget where these things come from, and it’s important to share that,” Powell says.
Powell shares that knowledge with others through dance, teaching, and her work with Holla Jazz. Her love of music and dance started at a young age. When she was nine, her parents enrolled her in ballet, tap and modern jazz classes. After high school, she continued to pursue her love of dance, attending open drop-in classes and eventually going to cities like New York and Los Angeles to continue training. She went on to work in film and television during some time spent in Vancouver and decided she wanted to explore her own creative voice, so she decided to pursue choreography. Powell then met a teacher who was working on a documentary about the history of black social dances from the early 1900s to the 2000s. After she watched it, she came to the realization that several dances from many decades ago were similar to today’s hip-hop moves. “The dance nerd in me wanted to learn more about these dances,” she says. She did some research on how it all connected, then returned to Toronto to work on her jazz dance. That evolved into her starting Holla Jazz, which lent itself to Powell creating a production about social dances in the 1920s, and how they connect to today’s street dances.
Not only will FLOOR’D be an opportunity to learn more about jazz, blues, and the jook, it will also be an opportunity for families, communities, and artists to connect. “It’s for all ages: for young, for old. Anyone who is a lover of wanting to connect and meet new people and see what the artists of Toronto are doing in the community, this would be a great show to experience,” Powell says.
To buy tickets and for more information, go to www.hollajazz.com.