Billy Siegenfeld keeps his dancers singing. Uninterested in movement for movement's sake, he aims to make visible the syncopated rhythms of jazz. To help the dancers learn his steps--and where the accents go--he has them sing a few beats, then do the moves that match:
"Sing that: DE da, DE da, DE da, DE da, DE da, DAH!"
He's in Costa Mesa this week, crafting a new piece as part of Ballet Pacifica's second annual guest choreographer's workshop. The troupe will stage Siegenfeld's and three other works-in-progress by fellow New York dancemakers Saturday at South Coast Repertory.
In his "Two Songs for Goin' Ga-ga," a group of good friends enjoys a night on the town. The piece is danced to "The Very Thought of You" as sung by veteran blues artist Helen Humes and "Love Is Just Around the Corner" by crooner Mel Torme, both of whom have given what Siegenfeld calls "a very swinging, syncopated spin" to the standards.
At a recent rehearsal, six women and three men skipped sleekly across the floor, kicked with low, turned-in legs a la the Lindy Hop, and punched the air percussively while he encouraged them to "have more fun with it!"
He also talked about the "battle" at the core of jazz dancing, the choreographic interplay between two distinct rhythms.
"Dancing on the beat gives off a sort of predictability and steadiness, and dancing off beat gives a sense of surprise and abandon," he said. "Jazz continually goes back and forth between the two."
"It's like being in a fun house. You walk casually around the corner, not knowing know what's there, then suddenly somebody goes boo!"
His approach recalls the classic jazz dance tradition of the 1930s and '40s, best exemplified by Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers, whose movie musicals Siegenfeld remembers adoring as a kid.
"They didn't study in dance academies, but went into the studio and literally started scatting to each other--'ba de da de da dat dat dat'--and those rhythms made their way into their movements."
Not surprisingly, his own training included jazz drumming (he started as a child and played in combos until college) as well as ballet, modern and jazz dance.
He has a master's degree in dance from New York University, performed with the Don Redlich Dance Company for nine years and is associate professor of dance at New York's Hunter College. He also is artistic director of the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project--himself, dance partner Jennie Hill and four musicians who tour nationally with his jazz musical "Romance in Swing Time." Jazz dance is a departure for Ballet Pacifica. Artistic director Molly Lynch wanted to include Siegenfeld in this year's choreographic project because contemporary choreography often combines various techniques.
"We're also looking for something different to introduce to our audiences," Lynch said, noting that any of the four visiting choreographers' new works may be added to the company's repertoire.
Siegenfeld didn't feel hindered by the technical limitations of Ballet Pacifica's "pre-professional" dancers. On the contrary, he said, their "individuality, freshness and youth" were an advantage.
"The dancers have to shuck off any restrictions of any technique and locate the rhythmic impulses in their bodies and make them blast out there," he said. "It's sometimes easier to get in touch with the joy, the freedom, the release that most of us went into dancing for in the first place when you dance from this rhythmic impulse, from the inside out.
What: Pacifica Choreographic Project '92, "Works in Progress" by guest choreographers Billy Siegenfeld, Mark Haim, Monica Levy and Kirk Peterson. A discussion with the choreographers follows the performance.
When: Saturday, Aug. 1, at 8 p.m.
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Avenue; exit north. Bristol to Town Center Drive.
Where to call: (714) 642-9275.