Local elements unite for a celebration of jazz.
How does one describe Kansas City?
More and more, the community is being defined as the “Creative Crossroads.” This creativity is surely spurred by the local art forms with long, deep roots within the community. First, let’s take Kansas City Ballet – the professional ballet company has been around for more than 55 years. Then let’s take the jazz movement that was so colorful and vibrant in Kansas City during the 1920s and continues strong to this day. Marry the two under the guidance of guest choreographer Karole Armitage and sax player Bobby Watson and prepare for some magic.
Kansas City is the focus and foundation for two of the pieces in Kansas City Ballet’s May 3-12 performances at the Kauffman Center. First there is African-American choreographer Donald McKayle and Hey-Hay, Going to Kansas City, with its celebration of the golden age of jazz. The ballet pays tribute to the era of nightclubs and dance halls when Kansas City was considered the “Paris of the Plains.” The as yet untitled ballet by Armitage, a world premiere, features KC’s favorite sax man playing solo in a multi-media piece that will include elements of both 2-D visual art.
Watson talked to us about the collaboration. “Karole called me and she had been listening to a recording I did almost 30 years as a solo sax artist, This Little Light of Mine, in Milan. It’s a solo sax recording with no accompaniment at all. There’s Misteriso and Blue Sax on the album. She had been listening to it a lot and we talked about the tracks she wanted to use and whether or not we could make it work. In December, we went over the recording and Karole has some definite goals for the piece. I will be live with the dancers. There will be some improvising off the dancers and some tracks will be layered with what I did 30 years ago. It’s like my young self is inspiring my older self,” Watson says. “If Bird Could See Me Now will probably be another song that will probably be mixed in,” Watson says.
Armitage has ties to the Midwest, specifically Lawrence where she started her ballet studies with former New York City Ballet dancer Tomi Wortham. To create a world premiere for the nearby professional ballet company, the Kansas City Ballet is a treat. “Kansas City Ballet is a wonderful company with great verve, style and technical accomplishment. It’s marvelous to work with great dancers. And there’s a special thrill to work in a place that one can call home. I know the local audience. I know it is one of the best audiences I have encountered in my travels around the world, as they really look at what is in front of them and react to it in an honest way. This is a very exciting place for a choreographer to work.”
The effort and process of creating great art is something Armitage has considered at length. “Great art is equal parts discipline and expressivity,” Armitage says. “By discipline, I mean the craft of the use of geometry, line and the flow of space. In the rigor of marking articulate shapes and the building of the dance phrases, meaning is exposed. Like writing a great sentence, you need not only great grammar, but unexpected twists that make things leap to life.”
Armitage says she is equal parts choreographer, storyteller and artist. “Actually they are the same to me. The stories I tell are not narrative stories, but are stories of consciousness and how it feels to be alive.” Armitage has danced across Europe and the United States, including as a member of the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland.
“I am not thinking about legacy. Dance is of the moment. It is alive as it happens. It’s an experience you only get at the time of its actual creation and that is its power!” she says. Armitage, who earned the title of “the punk ballerina” in the 1980s also manages her own dance company, and says there are no preset boundaries to her dances. “I hope that dance feels so spontaneous that it looks like the dancers are making it up as they go. I hate for it to feel like they are doing what they were told and aren’t deep in the expression of their most complex selves: feeling, analyzing, expressing and noticing. I am interested in the elaborate range of movement, so that the dancers go beyond their wildest dreams.” And of course, the audience is drawn into the dream too.
Partnering with dance isn’t a new experience for Watson, and each project presents him a new and different way to create art. “Sure, it’s a challenge when you know that you are the one who has the sole responsibility of creating a mood, shaping the color and curve with one horn,” Watson says. “It’s creating texture with the overlay of the recorded tracks; it’s going to be me times four. I love using my sound to inspire, it’s pretty cool.” Watson’s most recent experience with dancing and collaboration came with the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company. Co-founder and artistic director Mary Pat Henry choreographed part of his Gates BBQ Suite. “We performed it live at UMKC,” he says.
Jazz can be a conduit to collaboration, Watson says. “Jazz lends itself to theater, dance and drama. I have even interpreted paintings at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. I try to get the most drama out of my horn as possible. Like dance, jazz is a living and constantly vital art form that lives in the present and honors the past. In some ways, it also predicts the future. Jazz never forgets its past; it is not just museum music, but it is a living, breathing art form. Karole is progressive and edgy and I like what I have seen of her work. I am not her first jazz collaborator either. Dancing and playing will be natural and exciting for all of us.”
Watson and his horn stay busy. In March, Watson will be a soloist with the Kansas City Wind Symphony at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. From April 19-28, Watson returns to the “solo sax man” as part of the UMKC Theater show, Kansas City Swing, directed by Ricardo Khan. The play examines Kansas City in the autumn of 1947 and Jackie Robinson’s integration into major league baseball. The show also includes plenty of jazz and stories about 18th and Vine.
Then in late April, he will step into rehearsals with Kansas City Ballet. Watson says Armitage is like a jazz choreographer who understands improvisation. “I am looking forward to playing with and for the dancers. Music and dance are so linked. Historically, humanity has used both to express so much. I am looking forward to this with the utmost passion. I don’t know if I would have had these opportunities in New York. Kansas City has been good for me artistically.
“Outside of the jazz clubs in town, it’s great to put my music coupled with dance in front of the hometown crowd,” Watson says. “It’s good for those loyal to the Kansas City’s jazz scene and for me as well. Folks get to see another side of me. They can see what I value. As a professor, I try to be an example and lead by example. I want my students to see performances as teaching tools. I want them to see how broad this word jazz is and that it’s not just standing in front of a rhythm section, but the dynamics and the emotional content that can be paired with other styles and other artistic genres. What a responsibility!”
Tickets are available online at ticketing, www.kcballet.org or by calling the Kansas City Ballet Box Office at 816-931-2232.