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Ballet dancer that craved the freedom of jazz

Alisa Košeļeva-Nurahmedova — Jazz dance teacher, ​choreographer, promoter

Evilena Protektore
Eleonora Grigorjeva

Did you know that JVLMA doesn’t only deal with music, but on some occasions you can find a bunch of dancers there? Not only classical ones, but those who deal with jazz dance as well! A surprise, isn’t it? I was quite surprised a couple of years ago as well, when I was still a student of our jazz music department. I was approached by the head of jazz team with a proposition to join a special project that would unite students from both departments — jazz and choreography. The result of that was a concert named «It’s time for jazz!» where listeners could enjoy jazz in both it’s forms — music AND dance! To be honest, until I met Alisa I had no idea that jazz dance even existed. Yes, I’ve seen a couple of Broadway shows in the net (because you can find everything in the mighty webs), but in my mind the term «jazz» was found in music only. Shame on me. I can say that this project opened a whole universe for me, a world I got fascinated with, so I decided to investigate further. So I met with Alisa for an educational chat and now am ready to share the newly acquired knowledge with you, my dear reader! Enjoy!

Tell me a little about yourself?

I come from classical ballet, graduated from a ballet school, spent 3 years in Czech Republic in a theater. ​When I came back home I realised that I don’t want to do ballet dancing anymore. I knew I wanted to teach, but not classical dancing, no way. Then I accidentally stumbled upon a jazz dance class and instantly fell in love with it. ​It became my obsession. I liked that even if you have all the physical strength that the classical dance gives you, you can still wreck your brain with coordination. But jazz dance gives also huge freedom to the body, because ballet always has its strict rules. You also study the technique here, but there is so much space to put your creative streak to use, improvise, express yourself, and this I like most of all. I dove straight into it and stayed there for a long time.

What is a jazz dance anyway?

Good question… I don’t know how to give you the right answer. I’m not sure there is anyone who could define it precisely. Jazz Dance was developing alongside jazz music, around 1900es, in New Orleans. The movements and the style was brought to USA by Afro Americans, the slaves had their own culture, traditions, dances included. Ritual dancing was a very serious and popular thing and Americans liked it a lot as well, they took it and based on that made a whole new culture which they showed on the stage. One of the main characteristics of their dances was «improvisation in the style of a free conversation». Starting with 1930es and through 1960es jazz dance evolved from street culture into theatrical arts. ​Jazz Dance doesn’t have a certain term system as ballet, but there is a certain technique.

What about the famous Jazz Hands?

Yeah, that one is known to everyone! There are some terms, of course, but not so much that you could converse using only those terms, as in ballet.

What are inside parts of jazz dance?

There are 8 different sub-styles of jazz dancing.​ ​Maybe even more now, because the style evolves all the time. But the main 8 are: Afro Jazz, Broadway, Classical jazz, Modern jazz, Lyrical jazz, Contemporary jazz, Jazz-Funk and Street jazz. Relatively recently I’ve heard of another one — Latin jazz I know very little about, don’t even know what to say about that. ​

But how does then Swing (dance) fit in the picture?

It fits perfectly! Swing is used widely in Broadway jazz. Broadway has a lot of different styles and elements in it, everything to make the whole picture more fun and easy to the eye. Tap dance is also one of those styles. Both swing and tap exist separately from Broadway, but they come together there. Even I use those elements sometimes.

Eleonora Grigorjeva

How did you end up in the academy of music?

My road there was pretty long. When I came back to Latvia and found jazz dance, I realised that I needed to learn more, to study. The problem was that there were no places in Riga that taught jazz! So I traveled a lot, I’ve been to some serious courses in the US, Russia and UK. Aside from that I enrolled into RPIVA (Riga Teacher Training and Educational Management Academy), graduated from there and then my friend talked me into going to the Academy of music. I got my masters degree there in choreography and teaching, and stayed there as a teacher after I graduated. At the same moment they were altering the program and due to the fact that during my practice I taught jazz dance, they decided to include it into the study plan. For a couple of years I also worked in collaboration with different dance groups, but then thanks to my students I got the idea of forming my own dance group — Riga City Jazz. It was two years ago.

Is there a connection between jazz dance and jazz music?

Well, I personally love jazz music a lot, especially from the 50’s — Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles… That music is timeless, full of raw emotions and feelings, which is often missing in modern music. Broadway jazz is easier to dance using jazz music. Speaking of classical jazz, I most certainly use classical material, but concerning lyrical or contemporary jazz — it’s not a «must» to use jazz music. Yeah. Music is very important for jazz dance. If contemporary or modern ballet could be danced in complete silence or with some music on the background which a dancer disregards in terms of rhythmical or expressional guidance to his movements, in jazz it’s totally impossible. Necessary effect is achieved when a dancer dissolves in music and music in the dancer. Jazz music is bright, if you create the right choreography and everything comes together, then goosebumps will visit both the dancer and the audience. But all in all it all depends on the style. No one ever said that jazz dance has to be connected to jazz music.

Do you like working with the students?

It’s hard, but I like it. It also helps me to improve myself professionally. I spend a lot of time outside the study halls, I research, read, search for sources of inspiration, create new choreographies. The students inspire a lot, especially those who want to learn something. Those who work hard bring me joy. And dancers love working with jazz musicians, doesn’t matter which song they play, they will interpret it, play through their jazz prysm, everything sounds better when played by a jazz musician! Besides, live music helps to free dancers emotional side. It’s a tough job to dance with live musicians, because everything constantly changes depending on musicians mood or emotional setup, if he’s happy or tired, and it helps to improve the level of the dancer, to heighten their reaction speed.

Do you thing a dancer should know music theory?

We speak two different languages with musicians. We count our movements by 8ts, musicians count bars. We form our dances out of phrases, that’s why it’s important to us to divide music into 4’s and 8’s. I can’t state that music theory should be compulsory, but it could help. I myself have played the piano when I was little, not that I could play anything now… But maybe because of that it’s easier for me to count those 8’s, to hear musical phrases, syncopes, some may hear only the beat. It would be awesome it they could hear more… It’s not set in stone that dancers should know music, but maybe it’s not the right way, especially concerning the rhythm.

Tell me about the improvisation in jazz dance?

Sometimes the choreographer leaves some space for a little improvisation, if it fits the whole concept of the routine. Each dancer does it in his own way, uses his own technique. It’s the most complicated part of dancing. Tap dance has a lot of improvisation, but tap is mostly a style of dancing solo.

Eleonora Grigorjeva

Does jazz dance have anything in common with break dance battles?

Stage jazz dance doesn’t. We work with a well thought through choreography. We have a ready routine which we control, we have to ensure that the audience is surprised at all times to keep their attention on us. In battles dancers usually dance for their opponent, we dance for the audience, and our audience doesn’t have a chance to go to the bar, grab a drink, chill with friends, it’s a concert hall setup, where their attention is solely on us without any social aspect.

Does collective improvisation exist in jazz?

You can see it sometimes in jazz, but mostly it will be “staged” by the choreographer. Even if you have your own time frame for your improv, a choreographer will look through it first, evaluate your choice of movements. For example in the project «It’s time for Jazz!» with the students of jazz department we had a tune where musicians improvised and dancers also did, but they were limited in their choice of movements. Musicians also had instructions — 8 x 8 bars of active music, 8 x 2 bars of calm music, etc. All in all our choices were more limited than theirs.

Which dance routine is your favorite?

My most favourite choreographer is Bob Fosse, one of the Broadway jazz founders. His routines are still fascinating, amazing and leave you with your jaw on the floor. He created choreographies for a lot of musicals and plays, everything he does has a humor and a special mood. I think it’s very important in dance and music. I evaluate routines not only as a choreographer, but as a dancer as well, and Bob Fosse always inspires.

Have you ever “transcribed” a routine?

It’s not so common in choreography as it is in jazz. Classical ballet does famous routines, where you are not really allowed to change anything, like in the «Swan Lake», this one is known to the audience. It’s different in modern styles, choreographers can look for inspirations in such shows as «So you think you can dance», but to copy a routine? No way. It’s best I come up with one of my own.

If you judge things from the audience’s point of view, can jazz dance be an alternative to ballet? If, for instance, a person doesn’t like ballet, but wants to attend a dance show?

You can’t replace one with another, but as a style jazz dance deserves separate attention and its own audience. Jazz dance is expressive, ballet is limited, jazz thinks outside the box. But it’s also a matter of personal preferences, so might burst into tears from the «Swan Lake», but some might fall asleep watching it.

Eleonora Grigorjeva

Where can you see jazz dance? Not in the opera house, right?

Well, yeah, I doubt that they will host something apart from ballet. Modern dance, neo classics, classics — yes, but performed by a ballet dancer. It’s rare that you can attend a jazz dance show, Latvia doesn’t have that many dancers unfortunately, and even less choreographers, that work with that style. If you want to see something, you better follow certain organisers and dance studios. For example I organise our shows myself, sometimes we are invited by someone, but not too often. We often collaborate with Baltic Ballet Festival, but that happens only once a year. We do what we can, enthusiasm helps to survive.

Is there something special planned in your future?

We want to make a show dedicated to Ray Charles and his life. There will be his character and only his music. I love him a lot, his art, this idea keeps me awake at night. I don’t know when the show will be ready, but I’ll let you know!