The Real Story: Choreographer Peter Chu on “Groove, in formed” for Giordano Dance Chicago
Jazz dance is about a groove, a feeling, utilizing different rhythms, isolating the body and playing with different textures, layers, and levels of dynamics––all ideas that continue to inspire me.
The past is behind us, but always with us. While we may not be able to travel back in time, we can harness the power of our memories and experiences to guide us on our journey through life. An introspective look at yourself can be a scary and uncomfortable dive into the past, but you might just end up bringing treasured gems to the surface that remind you of the things most essential to who you are and who you can be. If we can find the courage to embrace the past, we may just find the strength to learn from our mistakes, embrace our most beloved passions and discover opportunities that bring us closer to the best that we can be.
Take for example, world-renowned choreographer, dancer and director Peter Chu. This highly accomplished artist has had success in both the concert dance and commercial dance worlds, with credits that range from dancing with Crystal Pite’s Kidd Pivot to the lead in Christina Perri’s Jar of Hearts music video. His choreography credits are just as impressive, which range from contributions to FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance to commissions for internationally-acclaimed companies including Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Charlotte Ballet, Houston MET Dance, SALT Contemporary Dance and Germany’s Staatstheater Augsburg. As an educator and director, Chu shares his experience and insights to artistry through his company, chuthis., and through the innovative programming he helps curate as Director of Choreography at Regional Dance America’s National Choreography Intensive. These accomplishments and many, many more are just the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg, kept afloat by the lush experiences and memories of his past.
Recently, Peter Chu spent two weeks in Chicago setting a new work, Groove, in formed, on the powerhouse dance artists at Giordano Dance Chicago. DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera had the opportunity to speak with Peter about the myriad experiences that helped guide the creation of this work, including his collaboration with musician Jake Kelberman on an original score. Here’s what Peter told us:
…Rhythms connect humans and help us grow; they remind us why we move.
Kristi Licera: Like many of today’s young dancers, your dance training began in local dance studios and dance conventions, but your history with movement and music goes much deeper than that. The influences of your childhood in the Bronx and summer visits to New York continue to influence your approach to choreography and the development of your passion for dance, especially in its jazz forms. Can you tell us more about how the rhythms and movement experiences in your life guided the creative process for Groove, in formed? What were some of the key elements you looked at in developing this work?
Peter Chu: Growing up, music was all around and a huge part of my life. My Mother, now retired, was a music therapist, teacher and director who now spends her time writing music books for children. Music, Mom’s generous way of leading, has shaped me into the person I am today–one who is drawn to movement, music and art. I was born in the Bronx, NY, and moved around the age of four to Cocoa Beach, Fl. My father continued to live in the Bronx, and my sister and I visited him during the summer holidays. From times I spent in the Bronx and Chinatown with my Father and Grandparents, I got a taste of breakdancing, Chinese Opera and Martial Arts Films. My New York summers unwittingly impacted, in a powerfully positive way, my approach to movement and my practice. Heading back to Florida, I attempted some of these tricks and approaches. Fast forward to middle school and high school years, I became a dancer, competitive gymnast and cheerleader.
While training at Dussich Dance Studio, I attended Florida Dance Master conventions and Florida Dance Festival where I was introduced to the many other forms of jazz cultural dances and where I began to appreciate the polyrhythms and history that helped shape this American art form. At FDM convention, I had the opportunity to take class with Gus Giordano. Having dabbled in the Giordano Technique during my training years, toured with Frank Hatchet for a summer and worked commercially since the late 1990s, Jazz dance has been a massive part of my dance career. In the early years of my professional career, I became heavily involved with Traditional Chinese Medicine as a science as well as an art form. This has led me to study, train and want to share my knowledge and passion for Qi Gong and Tai chi with my community.
Qi gong and Tai Chi principles coupled with Jazz dance & music both celebrate individuality but also focus on a vibration and rhythmical pulse that unites us.
Peter: Before I first worked with Giordano, I had never been asked to work with a professional company where Jazz dance is at the forefront. Although my work for dance companies cannot be characterized as a specific technique or style (e.g., ballet, modern, or jazz), musicality, isolations and an urban groove are very much alive in the movement language. Jazz dance is about a groove, a feeling, utilizing different rhythms, isolating the body and playing with different textures, layers, and levels of dynamics––all ideas that continue to inspire me.
After leaving Netherlands Dans Theatre II as rehearsal director in 2016, I began to question my purpose—why I was making work, why I was teaching and why I was in the moving arts. That fall, I came back to America to create a new work for my company, chuthis. During this time, I felt the weight of the political climate and the lack of clear, calm and compassionate communication (physical and verbal). Having already implemented Qi Gong and Tai Chi fundamentals into my chuthis. ideas class, I began to blend these fundamentals with rhythms and grooving. As I dove deeper into both the connections and differences, I realized just how much they complement one another. Qi gong and Tai Chi principles coupled with Jazz dance & music both celebrate individuality but also focus on a vibration and rhythmical pulse that unites us. These Rhythms connect humans and help us grow; they remind us why we move.
In this work, we celebrate individuality, which is a crucial component to jazz dance and being “in the groove.”
Peter: I absolutely adore Nan and had nothing less than a loving experience filled with many smiles. She treated me with the utmost respect, positive energy, and monumental trust, which I appreciate immensely. She continues to preserve Mr. Giordano’s legacy, but she is open to the exciting prospect of further developing their repertoire.
It is extremely important to acknowledge the history of Jazz dance and the wide range of Jazz dance technique. Nan is the right leader for this as she has a rich and precious connection with Jazz dance and understands the Giordano Technique like no one else. I respect that she continues with her father’s legacy and also encourages to support and push the future of Jazz dance and the vision of Giordano Dance Chicago.
I have had the honour of taking Nan’s company jazz class a few times now, and each time I am reminded of the value of the Giordano technique. Nan’s voice, the Giordano Technique, and her knowledge are as valuable as all other genres of dance such as ballet, modern, and etc.
The vibrations and sounds generated from music connect humans at a profound level as rhythms can heal and bring communities together during times of sadness, grief, love and joy.
Kristi: Jazz dance and jazz music have a historical relationship that has fallen by the wayside in recent years, especially as it pertains to training and developing the next generation of jazz dancers. Your current work is focused on rekindling the relationship between the two art forms and your music collaborator, Jake Kelberman, has been instrumental in this research and development. Can you give some insight into the nature of your creative and artistic relationship with Kelberman and what role it played in developing the score for Groove, in formed?
Peter: Continuing with the idea of grooves, rhythms, and the communal aspect of fad dances, I wanted to take advantage of working with a live Jazz Band; what better place than Juilliard, my alma mater? Jake and I met at Juilliard––precisely one year this month— while I was making work for Juilliard’s Fall 2019 for the third-year class. After creating Play Well With Others, I knew that I had to continue working with him.
Growing up, I listened to R&B, funk and a few jazz classics but did not connect to Jazz music. I felt that I needed to know why and how jazz and tap dance formed in America, and I knew Jake would be the best collaborator to help guide me during my process. During the Juilliard creative process, I asked Jake to compose a piece I made for the Charlotte Ballet. After this, I recommended Jake as Director of Music for Regional Dance America’s National Choreography Intensive where I was Director of Choreography. We built a curriculum that fused a wide range of Jazz music in a nurturing environment, which enabled the choreographers to build a broader awareness of the technical and artistic complexities implicit in dance-making. The curriculum, coupled with structured mentorship from Jake Kelberman and me, was designed to foster growth and inspire creativity in pre-professionals and professionals within the choreographic world. During this process, I finished reading Gus’s Jazz Anthology book. Needless to say, I enjoyed connecting the dots between jazz music and jazz dance.
I hope that this work inspires the artist and the viewer to listen to their internal rhythm and awakens the essence of why they groove.
Peter: For this second creation, I wanted to connect to the steps and rhythms infused in jazz dance and the Giordano Technique. Smooth and syncopated moves in the body emphasize individuality but are united by the pulsing history of this art form. Fad dances like the Charleston and Roger Rabbit have an understated presence in this work as well as a few exercises from the Giordano Technique* as a way to build and “in form” this communal experience.
During this creative process, Jake and I collaborated in such a way that it reminded me of the “call and response” that is present in jazz improvisation. We would speak, via phone, and share ideas, I would then send him a video of what I made during the process, and he would develop music for it. I later played with that music to see what worked with the movement, then gave Jake some thoughts and notes. It was an organic and collaborative process!
In this work, we celebrate individuality, which is a crucial component to jazz dance and being “in the groove.” The vibrations and sounds generated from music connect humans at a profound level as rhythms can heal and bring communities together during times of sadness, grief, love and joy.
This process respects repetitious sensations and isolated beats that pulse through the body. I hope that this work inspires the artist and the viewer to listen to their internal rhythm and awakens the essence of why they groove.
Catch the world premiere of Groove, in formed at Giordano Dance Chicago’s Fall Series Friday, October 25 and Saturday, October 26 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance (205 E. Randolph Drive, Chicago). Both performances take place at 7:30pm. Tickets are available at my.harristheaterchicago.org.
GDC’s Fall Series program will also include Flickers (2019), a full-company work by Marinda Davis. Learn more about this work from our previous coverage of its premiere: The Real Story: “Flickers” by Choreographer Marinda Davis for Giordano Dance Chicago.
To learn more about Giordano Dance Chicago, visit www.giordanodance.org.