When Bill Murray told Andie MacDowell at the end of Groundhog Day that “anything different is good” he probably wasn’t talking about Jump Rhythm Jazz Project specifically, although if he’d ever seen them perform, he might have mentioned them by name. That’s not really likely; Billy Siegenfeld founded Jump Rhythm in New York just about the time that they were filming Groundhog Day, and despite more than twenty years of demonstrating how to light up the night and enthrall an audience, not that many people know about them.
It’s a Dance Company like no other, and when they perform their Fall Season at Chicago’s Stage 773 from November 8th through the 11th, they’re bound to bring a completely unique energy and outlook to a completely different kind of movement and choreography, just like they always do. In fact, it’s actually a little surprising that they’re still so surprising. Artistic Director Billy Siegenfeld was named the Cliff Dweller’s Choreographer of the Year in 2011, and the entire Company won an Emmy Award for their performances in the PBS documentary Jump Rhythm Jazz Project: Getting There.
The reason why JRJP can be so accomplished and still fly under much of the dance world’s radar is probably that, because they’re so completely their own invention, they don’t readily fit into any easily recognized categories. Their name has the word “jazz” in it, but they’re more intricate, and probably more intense, than the term “jazz” usually suggests in choreography. The whole show jumps, but to rhythms that you feel as much as see, and much of what makes their shows work so well is the flawless, and often lightning-paced interaction between them on stage. They put it all together so well that you really don’t need any explanation if you see them perform, but for the great wide world of people who otherwise wouldn’t know, what they really need is a Users Manual. There certainly isn’t time now or room here for the entire manual; JRJP is to rich and too dynamic for that, but here’s at least a Quick Start Guide.
The Movement: Jump Rhythm Jazz Project actually spend as much time teaching as they do performing, because everything they do is based on an inspired and carefully constructed system of movement. It comes from the incredibly rich heritage that Siegenfeld calls “American Rhythm Dancing”, and it’s built out of an intricate consciousness of what makes movement natural. Jump Rhythm dancers move like rain forest cats, like jungle animals, like martial artists who never fight. They practice incessantly to make sure that every motion is rooted in the Earth, and moves through the body in the most natural way possible. The effect in performance is of an amazing stillness punctuated by motion that can be blisteringly fast, a combination that ends up being uniquely graceful.
The Choreography: JRJP sometimes describes what they do as “Dance Theater”, but that can be misleading. Choreography in theater is a part of the story, while at a Jump Rhythm show it is the story. All of the company members are capable of adding theatrical performance to the choreography; they may talk, beat box, or accent their movement with vocal rhythms, but the show is always the movement and the movement design. It can vary across a cinematic spectrum of moods and story lines, but the reason that audiences who experience it always become such believers in it is because it always conveys the same intrinsic exhiliration.
The Timing: Jump Rhythm doesn’t look at first as precise as classical dance forms, because it doesn’t accept the often injurious rules of posture that come to dance from the eighteenth century. The precision in Jump Rhythm is in the multi-rhythms and sub-rhythms that they build into their movement, and in the intricate mutual awareness of the dancers; it’s a precision whose effect in performance is profound, but almost subconscious.
There’s much, much more than that of course; for one thing, there’s often a distinctly dramatic edge to the construction of Jump Rhythm choreography. They can explore multi-personal interactions or complex, and sometimes controversial, social perspectives, but they can also just move and move some more for the sheer joy of it. A Jump Rhythm performance isn’t quite like any other dance performance you’ll see, except maybe for one thing. If you ever wanted to go back and see more of something, it’s just like that.