Megill & Co. bring jazz back in Ventura

“What is jazz?” choreographer and performer Beth Megill asks the audience rhetorically, early on in Megill & Company’s preview performance of Jeans and Jazz at NAMBA Arts in Ventura on Feb. 25th. The playful pieces that follow don’t intend to explicitly answer the question for us, but rather embrace the themes that jazz music and dance embody to Megill – joy, community, rhythm, connection, and even “imperfection”. The casual costumes of the five female company members – baseball tees, jeans, and bright red converse – further Megill’s belief that jazz is for everyone to participate in and enjoy. This is not the shockingly technical “jazz dancing” you see on popular reality television shows, but a relatable dance theater exploration of jazz, contemporary, and tap movement that makes you want to get up and dance right there in your jeans.

Soon after the fun start of the program “Introducing Cool”, the cast goes barefoot for “Rewind the Unwind”, where their theatrical facial expressions aid in creating pictures recognizable if you know your jazz dance history; many of the short vignettes throughout the program reference jazz movement a la Bob Fosse, the Ziegfeld Follies, and Jerome Robbins.

After the faster-paced opening, the tempo shifts to slow jazz with “Blue Note Memory”, a strong technical solo by Karissa Smith, whose graceful control was already a stand out in the group numbers and really shines in the contemporary jazz movement of the piece. Megill also performs a delightful improvised solo, “Life’s a Moving Walkway”, utilizing her tongue-in-cheek personality as she playfully duets with a chair like a quirkier Ginger Rogers. “Caught Up” then brings four dancers together for a groovy vignette with added rhythm from the dancers’ claps and snapping. The group seamlessly adds human elements of storytelling to the next numbers, first as Erin Sofley’s comedic solo “Cocktail Napkins” emotively portrays us at our finest dancing ability – after a few drinks – then in “Musical Chairs”, the tension-filled game involves a creative mix of acting and movement until the lucky winner gets her seat.

After a poem from Megill, where she dares us to “surrender fully to the beat”, the entire cast dons tap shoes for the last two numbers, “We knew it wouldn’t last” and “Stop. Listen. Dance”. The music for these pieces was unexpectedly contemporary, which stuck out to me in the jazz-filled program. Still, the tap dancing was an exciting addition to the evening. Each member was able to show their personality in rhythmic solos, but it wasn’t all about the sound – their upper bodies were just as alive as they executed chainés and pirouettes, fusing tap and jazz to tell their stories and leave us with a last playful number.

The evening also included a guest performance, “Hanging by My Tears” choreographed by Teresa Heiland in collaboration with the dancers (Gillian Ebersole, Madeline Ortiz, Alison Sulka, Amanda Wilson, Darren Maser-Katter, and Amy Vaillancourt). According to the program notes, the contemporary dance piece was inspired by “texts and images about world conflict” which was incorporated using the choreographic processes of Laban’s basic A-scale and Trisha Brown’s 26 directions. The result was a well-defined, cyclical piece that showed the six dancers first moving mostly disconnected, to coming together in pairs and groups, and finally repeating the same movement choreography but no longer needing to touch, as if they could support themselves on their own. I would have liked to see the piece on a bigger stage, as sometimes the movements (mostly in the far kinesphere and utilizing the entirety of the performance space) seemed restrained by the intimate studio setting. I was particularly taken with a moment when dancers added one-by-one to a circle where they connected arms, their simple touch indicating solidarity and demonstrating the strength to be found in a group. It was an absorbing choreographic exploration of how we respond to difficult circumstances alone and with those around us.

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