DANCE REVIEW: At Jacob’s Pillow, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks moves with ‘rare confidence’ and ‘full-bodied pleasure’ on the Leir Stage

By Katherine Abbott - The Berkshire Eagle
3 min read | August 10, 2023

BECKET — Out under the trees they’re a wave of color — riding the tide of drums and keys and brass, the full company is dancing in shorts and open shirts and vivid prints. On this mountaintop it feels like a 1970s vibe is rocking the plaza mayor on a summer night.

Decidedly Jazz Danceworks from Calgary, Alberta, are making their Jacob’s Pillow debut all this week on the Henry J. Leir Stage.

They’re outdoors, shimmering between sun and leaf shadow with fast footwork in sync and an inflection of salsa and disco. They’re voguing, gesturing to themselves, highlighting their bodies with all-out humor and gusto.

They carry the percussion in their core — not centered in the resonance of their feet, as tap performers do, but in the taut control of their movements. They flex and hold with the beat, pause and stretch with the music in a decisive Yes. And yes. And yes.

They’re performing to a live band with composer Rubim de Toledo on bass, and Karimah is swaying as she sings — vocalist, composer and lyricist with a low and carrying voice.

She and the company flex their emotional range, from an all-out welcome in the opening to a taut challenge in “Trouble of this World.” Natasha

Korney walks on like she owns the stage, and she and Kaleb Tekeste are swinging into action, challenging each other and taking weight for each other, hips canted and in charge.

The music takes on a taunting tone, and Tekeste joins Jason Owin Galeos, Shemar Herbert and Thys Armstrong in “Vila de los Lobos.” They’re compelling in the strength and force in their movements. Shoulders wide, arms taut, they can move with anger and will and contest and confidence. They’re holding shakers, keeping the beat and tossing them to each other like hacky sacks with casual precision.

Shahrzad Ahmadi and Sabrina Comanescu weave through, tossing and catching percussion, trading drumsticks in a teasing call-and-response, fast and sure. And then dancers are playing polyrhythms as drumsticks work their way into complex rhythms, and Morris Dance seems to have taken on a sudden and contemporary life, as real and varied and day to day as street food and home brew.

Decidedly Jazz has immersed in living traditions for almost 40 years, says Pillow Associate Curator Melanie George. They describe themselves as “guests in a form born of Black American culture and African American experience,” immersed in jazz music — a delta in itself — swing and African rhythms. She traces Caribbean, Cuban and Canadian sounds and influences in the mix.

She recognizes in the company a respect and dedication and persistence and a love for jazz “at a time when many who once claimed a jazz dance aesthetic have abandoned the form … They are one of the few concert dance companies that have remained invested in jazz dance beyond its commercial and pop culture prospects.”

They have grown dance and music together, setting original works on original compositions since their early years. Founded in 1984 by a professor and dancers from the University of Calgary, Decidedly Jazz Danceworks has worked with live jazz musicians since 1988. And they hold a long institutional memory. Artistic Director and Choreographer Kimberley Cooper studied and performed with the company before taking the lead 10 years ago, and she is known for working with her dancers individually to draw out their strengths and potential.

“As a jazz-centered, female-led company,” George says, “they are wholly unique.”

Surrounded by the beat of their percussion and keys and the high held call of their brass, I can feel that energy out here tonight — individually and together, they move into new spaces with a rare confidence in who they are and a full-bodied pleasure in the feel of movement from their soles to their temples.

That glow comes across powerfully in all of their work, and most rarely for me when the women and female identifying folk embody it, because even in a summer full of powerful and progressive companies here, I’ve been looking for this kind of joy.

Dance is innately a meeting of mind and body innately rooted in a physical expression of strong emotion, and in this artform — especially in jazz dance, rooted in survival and courage and community — women should have full potential to show and feel love and intimacy and passion, a full stretch of pleasure and delight in strength.

I feel that here, in solo and duo works and the high tide of the full ensemble — in “North Sea” and “Let’s Make Some Music” and “As Long as You’re Living.” Kaja Irwin is cupping her hands and opening her arms to the world, here’s what I’ve got, here’s who I am, and I love every part and every particle.

Shahrzad Ahmadi and Sabrina Comanescu are catching the light in glimmering green, Korney and Cassandra Bowerman are laughing and exuberant and looking the world in the eye. And all of the company are breaking like surf in the sun, close to the earth and lifting into the trees.