Walking, stillness, head spins and one-armed balances. Emotion, b-boying, Philip Glass. When Cirque du Soleil and the Cirque Noveau movement first emerged in the performing arts world during the 1970’s, they created a new genre by taking acrobatics and clowning into a theatrical realm—adding lights and music and narrative to the circus tricks and reshaping a traditional form into something excitingly different. Jacob Jonas, choreographer and director of Jacob Jonas The Company, has done something like that with street dance. A May 3 performance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, in Santa Fe, a thousand miles from the streets of LA where Jonas got his start, offered an exciting juxtaposition: the shapes of break-dance edited into something more structured and narrative, like contemporary dance. Jonas, the choreographer, shows an eye not only for the visual (he is also a professional photographer) but a knack for using music, narrative, space and time. At 26 he is venturing into new territory, offering dances that combine his personal street smarts with a certain youthful optimism. The work is physically extreme but ventures out from an emotional place.
“In a Room on Broad Street,” like all the dances offered at the Lensic, began with walking. That, and the use of folding chairs, seemed to veer dangerously into the territory of Choreography 1, but because Jonas was relentless about his use of these clichės, the walking, sitting, and waiting suggested not the absence of ideas, but the absence of artifice. His take on dance is not a rip-off of post-modern, pedestrian, 70’s-style experimental dance that he watched on YouTube, but a prelude to the floor, where his dances almost always end up. Here, the polished floorboards of a theater become cement, street, reality. The music, a playlist blend that started with a pulsing electronic score by Trentemøller, and moved, eventually, into old-school Nina Simone, helped recontextualize all the break-dancing. Jonas’ eight dancers, who come with classical training and/or an education from the school of the street, blended themselves into a surprisingly cohesive whole. Feats of technical bravado were almost always street-oriented, although occasional ballet moves, yoga positions, sweeping leg extensions and turns offered variety. The costumes, jeans and sneakers, were reminiscent of “West Side Story,” as was a sense of communal drive. The Sharks and the Jets have learned a new way of moving.
One of Jonas’ most ingenious innovations is in marketing. His #CamerasandDancers initiative pairs Instagram-famous photographers with dancers from his company and others, using the architecture of museums, public spaces and streets all over the world to create striking images. “Grey,” the second piece on the program, was a video shot at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Here, architecture was one of the dancers in the piece, and the use of stairwells, green-space, palazzo-tiled plazas as well as sun, breeze and shadows on the dancers, created a strikingly effective dance. Starting with time-lapsed masses (walking) and then settling into an extended solo for a single female, the dance began to seem like a stylized chase scene, as one dancer followed another, and then another, across a range of visual settings. There was always a kind of emotional pull as a transition, moving from one scene to another, from one human interaction to the next.
“One Pair Off,” featured one particularly beautiful, classically-trained dancer, Jill Wilson, who is also a co-founder of the company, in various pairings with three street-style dancers. The juxtaposition of styles was quicker and more dynamic here because of the way Jonas choreographed duets and other groupings. With little in the way of traditional transitions, arm gestures and “dancey” posturing here, the street dancers were sometimes left waiting awkwardly for their turn with Wilson. Once each duet or trio began, however, the moves were fresh, frequently gravity-defying, and choreographically interesting.
“Obstacles,” was inspired by Jonas’ friend, Mallory Smith, who is heard in voice-over discussing her life and inevitable death from cystic fibrosis. (She passed away in 2017). A duet for Jonas and the tiny Marissa Labog suggested that she was Smith and Jonas was death. While the use of voiceovers and the subject matter were heavy-handed, Jonas was successful in suggesting, through a repetitive diagonal spatial pattern, the march of time. Only a few over-wrought facial expressions on Labog’s part marred the simplicity of the piece. A challenge for Jonas would be to create a new version of the piece without voiceovers. Could he communicate what must have been a horrible personal loss without his friends’ words?