A Little Jazz on the Prairie

The Heart of Africa in Alberta's Decidedly Jazz Danceworks.

By Cheryl Foggo

Vicki Adams Willis is a walking advertisement for the adage that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Her apple-cheeked Scottish face, the short, non-angular lines of her body, and her spotlight-shunning nature suggest someone who should be running a wool shop in Edinburgh more than someone running Canada’s hippest dance company. Yet this Decidedly Jazz Danceworks artistic director is the scion of one of Calgary’s most respected dance families and an internationally acclaimed jazz dance guru.

The epiphany that led to her unlikely destiny happened in a small viewing booth at the Lincoln Centre Library in Manhattan. In allegiance to her family’s teaching tradition, Vicki had been instructing at various community dance programs around Calgary and at the university, but by the late 1970s was experiencing troubling doubts about the validity of the jazz elements of her classes. Research in New York City placed her in that viewing booth watching old footage from the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem—brown women and men abandoning themselves to the music. Up to that point, the “something” she had been searching for had remained nameless, but she recognized truth as soon as it appeared. As those images flickered on the screen in front of her, Vicki began to weep. That moment awakened a passion to revive the origins of this dance form from its West African roots, which in turn sparked a stampede to her classes back at the U of C. Among the students who formed her loyal and enthusiastic following were two gifted young dancers, Michele Moss and Hannah Stilwell.

The seed of DJD was planted in a downtown Calgary restaurant, Slack Alice, in 1983. Michele and Hannah had blossomed under Vicki’s tutelage in the jazz program at the U of C, but as sometimes happened to fine arts grads in those days, they ended up waiting tables, which was how Michele was unhappily occupied when Slack Alice owner Dalton Dalik said, “Well, you’re a dancer, you should be dancing.” She knew he was right, but she and Hannah both had a problem that a TV producer from Toronto once called “That Alberta Thing”—they were artists who wanted to stay in Alberta. They approached Vicki and asked her to start a company with them.

The timing was right for Vicki, just returned from a discouraging search for authentic jazz dance companies across the US and Europe. When Michele and Hannah proposed a new, local dance company, her head was still buzzing with bewilderment and sadness over what people all over the world were passing off as jazz.

The founders of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks: Vicki Adams Willis, Michele Moss and Hannah Stilwell

The founders of Decidedly Jazz Danceworks: Vicki Adams Willis, Michele Moss and Hannah Stilwell. (Suzy Thompson)

After the Second World War, Afro-American vernacular dance had become separated from jazz music. Transplanted from the streets and dance halls into the dance studios, what had once been a grounded form became “upright, balletic and showy” because, Vicki says, “it’s very difficult to access that spirit by teaching from a European, pedagogical standpoint.” By the early 1980s, when Hannah and Michele were looking for meaningful work, the essence of jazz dance had been all but erased.

The company they created was named for its mandate to “revive the rhythmic sophistication, resurrect the sense of self-expression through improvisation, and proclaim jazz dance as the compelling, expressive, deep, musically and rhythmically hip form that it had once been.”

Decidedly Jazz received a grant to hire four dancers for a couple of months—Hannah, Michele, Jill Currie and Sean Cheesman. The critical and audience response to their first show in the fall of 1984 was so positive they had to extend the run by several performances.

Michele and Hannah went on their first African dance-research trip in 1986. Their plane landed 12 hours late in Dakar, Senegal, and the tenuous contact they had sort of prearranged had fallen through, leaving them to wander the city asking strangers if they knew anyone who knew anything about dance. Somehow, in their extreme naïveté, they found themselves in the company of a man who, while stopping frequently to replenish his palm wine, was now leading them through pungent markets, down narrow alleyways, deep into a city where they knew no-one. They shrank together, both thinking they should probably listen to that disquiet in their guts and turn back, but they didn’t. They were scared, holding hands on a steep, precarious staircase. When at long last they reached the top of that dizzying staircase, these two young pioneer women, bearing the banner of a company called Decidedly Jazz from a city called Calgary, burst onto a sun-gilded veranda into the midst of a circle of dancers and drummers. They spent the rest of that wonderful day trading in the twin languages of movement and music, and were told in the end by the Senegalese that they danced like Africans.

In 1987 Decidedly Jazz took the frightening leap to full time, with 10 dancers. They had been stumbling along financially through summer seasons but remained committed to providing jobs and training for dancers. Fingernails thoroughly bitten down, DJD’s braintrust created a dance school and performed with live musicians.

As the years passed, they took their share of bullets. Some people sniffed about “a bunch of suburban white kids” (ignoring Michele’s paternal Afro-Caribbean lineage) adopting an Afro-American art form and touting themselves as the defenders of its authenticity. US booking agents accused them of trying to sell snow to Eskimos. But the company took heart from the support of dance legends like Buster Brown and Frankie Manning and musicians like Big Miller, who loved the company’s work and saw nothing but honour in the mandate. Besides, Vicki had already spent her entire life dancing in that untraditional body—the fact that her appearance doesn’t say “jazz” any more than it says “dance” was just one of those things.

DJD hears fewer of those kinds of comments now. There is more cultural cross-pollination across the globe today than there was 25 years ago. And with Calgary’s multi-faceted growth, DJD has been able to attract a diverse mix of dancers that simply wasn’t available here even 10 years ago.

Unlike some companies, DJD doesn’t hire for uniformity; apart from the fact that they all look strong, each of the current crop of dancers is physically distinct. And beautiful. It’s impossible to write about dancers and their movement without sounding smitten, but truthfully there is not much on earth more expressive than the heart-stopping lilt of a dancer’s body through space. How is it that Deanne Walsh can say more with the backward tilt of a shoulder than many people could say if they talked all day?

Malika Srivastava, who in makeup and costume resembles a silent film star, makes connections between her progress through life and the yin and yang she experiences as a jazz dancer. She danced ballet and contemporary before returning to Calgary to dance with DJD because, “In jazz there are ‘oppositions’—a lot of freedom, but also a lot of control. That fits with the way I want to live.”

Malika’s passion for the whole-life philosophy of DJD is representative of the way in which even newcomers contribute to a dynamic that consistently produces electrifying seasons, no matter who is under the spotlight. That dynamic is born of top-down commitment to the dancers through programs that are unusual for dance companies, such as a benefits package and 10-month contracts. The commitment is repaid in the integrity of the work and passed on through generations. Although Hannah and Michele are now affiliated with DJD only as occasional returning guest artists, their bonds with Vicki and the company remain strong, and the young dancers still honour their legacy as company founders and mentors. Michele calls it “dancing in the skin of our ancestors,” and she’s not just talking about her African ancestors; she’s talking about Vicki.

But Vicki would rather not be a guru. Referring to her late husband, she says, “Garry was my cheerleader. He was the one to say, ‘Of course you can do this,’ when I doubted myself. And one thing I realized when he was gone is that I don’t want to be indispensable. If something happens to me, I want the company to be able to carry on.” She is keen to share responsibility. “More and more, I’m trusting the improvisational nature of jazz. The DJD dancers have all this training in the root forms, they have the vocabulary within their bodies. My job is just to come up with the journey. There’s no way that I personally can become an expert on all the jazz forms. That’s why we have the professional development program, so anyone who’s been in the company for three years can apply for money to go away and study, and bring back that knowledge for all of us to experience.”

To share the choreographic load and address the dearth of authentic jazz choreographers in the world, the company initiated a biennial dancer-choreographed show. It’s now bearing fruit. After 18 years with the company, artistic associate and resident choreographer Kim Cooper is acquiring a reputation for edgy choreography that represents the other end of the spectrum of the company’s mandate, which is to “contribute to the evolution of the art… [to] address the contemporary nature of the form by linking jazz dance to contemporary jazz music fusions… to explore and evolve.” Artistic assistant Sarisa Figueroa has also in recent years developed a choreographic trademark that reflects her firecracker dance style. Sarisa will be the artistic director of Tinge and Tone, DJD’s June show, which she says will be “rooted in the DJD tradition, super jazzy, with a live jazz quintet and original music,” directed by composer/bassist Rubim de Toledo. The show will feature the work of five outstanding DJD choreography protégés: Sarisa, Kim, Jamie Freeman Cormack, Michele Moss and Hannah Stilwell.

“Here was this treasure sitting modestly in Canada that could easily be competing on the international market…I’ve worked with choreographers all over the world and know just how rare [DJD] is.” —Heather Cornell

Covering all the bases in her aim to remain dispensable, Vicki credits general manager Kathi Sundstrom with DJD’s much-improved financial stability. “She left her high-powered job to come work with us and I remember her saying ‘I’ll be here about two years to get you sorted out financially and then I’ll move on.’ That was in 1993, and here we are. Not that we haven’t had scary financial moments since then, but I know if there’s a way through, Kathi will find it.”

But Vicki will always have difficulty shaking the guru label, since it’s not just her own dancers that are talking her up out there.

Heather Cornell, award-winning artistic director and principal choreographer of Manhattan Tap, flew to Ottawa to act as an evaluator for the Canada Council back in the days when DJD was barred from applying for funding because the powerful agency considered jazz dance to be “folk” art rather than “high” art. It was in part through endorsements like Cornell’s that the funding agency changed its policy.

“I told the Canada Council they were crazy not to fund this company,” recalls Heather. “This was the real thing. Here was this treasure sitting modestly in Canada that could easily be competing on the international market. Their work is so rooted in the history, the knowledge and the technique… they are great choreographers. The skill level is there in the dancers but also in the choreography. I’ve worked with choreographers all over the world and know just how rare that is. The company’s commitment to the community is amazing; how enriching they’ve been and how loyal to Calgary. It’s also extremely rare for companies to work with live music. They are forward thinkers and still ahead of much of the dance world.”

DJD has established itself as the place to study authentic jazz dance in North America; dancers have flown in from every Canadian province, from across the US and from dance hotbeds New York and London to participate in their summer immersion workshops and other programs.

Renowned choreographer Sean Cheesman, who left for New York the day after closing his last show with DJD in its inaugural season, credits Vicki with broadening his notion of what dance could be. “I came from a dance school background. It wasn’t until I experienced Vicki’s choreography that I realized dancing wasn’t just pas de bourrée and the count of eight, that it had all different rhythms and different steps.” He also found Vicki’s generous choreographic style instrumental to developing trust in his own instincts as a choreographer. “Vicki would take a lot of our improvisation and incorporate it into the piece, so that gave me the confidence to follow my own movement, to know that what I did myself was valid. My work there opened my eyes in many ways, especially when it comes to comedic dance.” Sean found early success in music videos in New York, first as a backup dancer and eventually as a choreographer for Michael and Janet Jackson, Prince, Queen Latifah, Faith Hill and many others. He currently lives in London, where he is tearing a swath through the world of choreography on stage and in television. He has often creatively revisited his work with Decidedly Jazz. “A piece Hannah and I did called Moments in Blue is still one of my favourite pieces. I’ve tried to duplicate it in my own way many times since. I’m just very proud of them and I’m proud that I’m one of the original four.”

Sean is right about Vicki’s comedic touch. Long-time Calgary dance fans still recall Betty Poulsen’s eight-months-pregnant performance of the floozy in Flamingo Rag and the blindingly fast South African boot dance performed by the sleep-deprived hoboes from No Small Feets. One of Vicki’s great strengths as a choreographer is her ability to distill the spectrum of human experience into dances that reflect ourselves back to us.

Vicki’s shyness has probably been a great contributor to her creative method. She is not the person who strides into a room and takes over; she is the shrewd observer. Her insights infuse her work with charge and emotional resonance. Flamingo Rag is both funny and poignant. We’ve all seen people floundering at parties, awkwardly trying to insinuate themselves into other people’s social interactions. We’ve seen those people, and most of us have been those people at some point. Vicki takes our tiny, subtle signals and highlights them to music. We have “rhythmic pathways” moving throughout our bodies, she says, and it is her intuitive understanding of these rhythmic pathways and her ability to channel our humanity through these pathways that speaks to the audience.

As Decidedly Jazz Danceworks prepares to celebrate 25 years on Calgary stages, the company will continue to keep the spirit while turning it loose, to blast expectations while respecting tradition, to improvise, pay tribute and invent. Vicki will continue to imagine things that have never been done in Calgary before: the next couple of years will see them moving to a much-needed larger space with seven new studios that will make room for the social programming for at-risk youth that Vicki began to envision after watching street-dancer Kaleb Tekeste’s rise through the company. In Vicki’s vision, this gift to the community could also be a gift to DJD, by attracting even more young men to the company.

One of DJD’s current male dancers, Ivan Nuñez Segui, tried to describe for me through an interpreter the similarities between Calgary audiences and those in his native Havana. “No matter where you are dancing,” he said in Spanish, “if you’re dancing from the heart it will touch the audience. No matter where you are, that stays true.” Before the translator opened her mouth, I realized I’d already understood, because dancers talk through their bodies. He touched his heart as he spoke.

In 1993, Hannah and Michele danced in the enormously popular and critically successful No Small Feets, presented by DJD for the second year running. The show was based on the life and music of blues legend Big Miller and because Miller had died nine days before he was supposed to appear live with the company in 1992, they had to rely in part on rehearsal tapes Miller had made for them. Those tapes were fine for rehearsal, but not great for concert performance. To bolster the background vocals on “Shoo Fly,” Vicki and various other backstage inhabitants would collect around microphones in the wings and echo Big’s mahogany voice on the chorus—“Shoo Fly, don’t bother me / Shoo Fly, don’t bother me.”

One night when the house was packed, I was backstage at the Martha Cohen theatre with Vicki, who pulled me to a microphone when the time came. It was a simple chorus, requiring only that I switch from an “E” to a slightly flattened, bluesy “C” on the singing of the word “me” in the second line. I took my place at the mike, intending to belt it out, but just as Big got to the part where he sang “Uhh, uhhh, uhhh,” my mind flashed back to Michele and Hannah on their first African dance-research trip to Dakar.

From the wings of the Martha Cohen those many years later, I could also see Kim Cooper, a young dancer whose ability to become the music with every pore in her body was hypnotizing the audience. I thought about her story—that while attending the very first DJD show at the age of 12, she announced to her mother that she would be joining the company one day.

As I watched the dancers, I knew I was looking at not just a local and national treasure, but a personal treasure, and in one of those moments we all have when we mentally inflate our own importance, I pictured myself hitting a sour note and bringing the whole thing crashing down—Decidedly Jazz Danceworks, Vicki Adams Willis, Michele, Hannah, Big Miller, Kim Cooper, the palm-wine drinking man from Dakar and anyone else who had ever been associated with the company in any way.

I lip-synched. #

Cheryl Foggo is an award-winning author and lifelong Calgarian.


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