Wild life of Charles Mingus inspired soulful new show
Change is afoot at Decidedly Jazz Danceworks in this its 30th anniversary year.
The company has a new artistic director Kimberley Cooper who replaces founding artistic director Vicki Adams Willis. Cooper is a longtime DJD teacher dancer and choreographer — in fact she’s been with the company since she graduated from high school.
The company is also in the throes of building a new home.
But for DJD’s fall show Better Get Hit in Your Soul the dancers are returning to a venue they haven’t been in for several years: the Big Secret Theatre.
Better Get Hit in Your Soul is inspired by the life and times of jazz musician Charles Mingus. A double bassist pianist composer and bandleader Mingus died of ALS in 1979.
“He’s wild big an almost mythological creature. I thought it would be a really interesting experience for the dancers and the audience” says Cooper who choreographed the show.
“He was known as the ‘angry man of jazz.’ He was mercurial in his temperament. He could go from picking a fight with an audience member to buying him drinks after the show.”
Mingus was married five times and had several children with different women. Of mixed race his ethnicity was something of a hurdle he had to face.
“In some circles he wasn’t black enough. In other circles he wasn’t white enough” Cooper says recounting one story in which a patron at a club approached Mingus and told him “You’re not black enough to play the blues.”
Better Get Hit in Your Soul however is not exactly biographical. Cooper describes the dance as being inspired by the music with some collaged ideas about his life. “It’s more like an abstract painting than a portrait” she adds.
For example in the first act of Better Get Hit in Your Soul which uses both male and female dancers a duet for two women isw reflective of a story in Mingus’ autobiography that states he was in a relationship with two women and also acted as their pimp.
Somehow however Mingus’ wild ways didn’t prevent him from being a prolific composer. He wrote more than 300 scores in his short life (he died at 56 years old) and he recorded over 100 albums.
“His music is vast and transcends many styles and thoughts and ideas. Sometimes it’s really traditional. You can hear the blues and gospel. Sometimes it’s more classical or something between jazz and classical” says Cooper.
Better Get Hit in Your Soul uses a combination of live music — courtesy of a three-piece band — and recorded tracks sometimes switching between the two within the course of one number.
“It adds a nice layer to the show” says Cooper. “So many of his recordings are so exquisite. He talks about his main influences as the church and Duke Ellington. You can often hear the horns and sounds like shouting in the recordings.”
The Big Secret Theatre’s small size played a part in the choreography for the show which includes seven dancers and creates a more “intimate” experience. For one thing there will be audience members on two “fronts.”
“This dance will offer more of a 360-degree experience. Often dancers become slaves to where the audience is. I tell the dancers ‘If your back is to the audience dance with the back of your neck your calves.’ It’s amazing how much the dance transforms when you bring that awareness” Cooper says.
Act Two of Better Get Hit in Your Soul features only male dancers who take turns embodying the different aspects of Mingus’ character.
“There are moments of rage and passion which are reflective of him and his music” says Cooper.
The set features a gigantic bass bow suspended from the ceiling which dancers hang from at certain points during the production.
“It adds a new dynamic for us. Mingus seemed very precarious. His mood would slip on a dime. That hanging-in-balance theme goes on in the show and I wanted to add something where the dancers are literally hanging in balance. It helps us to explore that side of him” says Cooper.