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Jump Rhythm Jazz Project swings to a different tune, Oct. 22

Thursday, Oct. 22, will be a day to celebrate with one of today’s leading dance companies, when members of Billy Siegenfeld’s Jump Rhythm Jazz Project visit Rhode Island College during its 20th anniversary season.

Billy Siegenfeld

The performance by this Emmy Award–winning ensemble will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Nazarian Center’s Sapinsley Hall and will showcase the Jump Rhythm Quartet, consisting of Brandi Coleman, Kevin Durnbaugh, Jordan Kahl and Siegenfeld. Dancers from the Rhode Island College Dance Company will also be on the program.

Siegenfeld’s dance roots run deep. He began his career in the vein of such modern dance pioneers as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey.

After graduating from Brown University, he moved to New York City, got a master’s degree in dance from New York University, and spent nearly a decade performing with the Don Redlich Dance Company.

By the 1980s, however, Siegenfeld felt the need to explore a different kind of outlet for his creative juices. Jazz dance was that outlet.

In some ways it was more of a resurrection than a discovery for Siegenfeld. Growing up, he adored Fred Astaire musicals, and his parents often played Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson records. Also, Siegenfeld had early training as a jazz drummer and played in combos until college.

In 1990 he founded the Jump Rhythm Jazz in New York, and in 1993 moved the company to Chicago, where it is now based.

The RIC program will feature a couple pieces from the start of the Jump Rhythm’s second decade – “Poppy and Lou” from 2000 and “I Hear Music” from 2001, as well as an excerpt from “Getting There,” a 1994 piece that will be performed by the RIC dancers. But new work is well represented, with three of the pieces created in 2010.

Angelica Vessella, director of dance at RIC, said of Siegenfeld’s work, “It is rhythmically charged and tends to be grounded into the earth. For instance, it doesn’t use lift as in ballet.

“Young people equate jazz dance with what they see on TV, but this work is richer and the essence of the work lives in the syncopation and the crosspulses. It isn’t driven by the downbeat as so much of what we see in pop culture and competitive dance today tends to utilize.

“This work is much more like tap in that the basis of the work resides in the off beats and requires its performers to be acutely aware of the music being played and oftentimes the music they are creating or rather, scatting.”

Another noticeable aspect of Siegenfeld’s choreography is the eclecticism of its musical resources. While they consistently pay homage to the tradition, they incorporate some striking variances.

One of Siegenfeld’s recent works, “Why Gershwin,” mixes the composer’s highly crafted melodies with the raw energy of James Brown’s vocals.

In a video interview, Siegenfeld commented on the piece, “What I am doing by synching James with George and Ira is trying to create an environment that is essentially rhythmic and essentially about how rhythm bursts through bodies in different kinds of emotional states.”

This is not a new development either, as the 2001 “I Hear Music” dovetails Loesser and Lane, the Gershwin brothers, and Rodgers and Hammerstein, with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Siegenfeld sees the dancer’s body as a kind of musical instrument that combines movement with vocalizing and other sound-production techniques. While this is hardly a unique concept, Siegenfeld’s particular approach is.

In fact, it has a trademarked name, the Jump Rhythm Technique, and Dancer magazine called it “the first genuine jazz technique in forty years.”

The company’s website summarizes it as “a unique system of movement learning that transforms the dancing body, accompanied by the scat-singing voice, into a dynamically expressive, rhythm-accurate percussion instrument.”

And it goes on to explain an adjunct method, Standing Down Straight: “This pedagogy also guides students to work holistically: based on the movement-efficient, gravity-directed approach to alignment called Standing Down Straight, it promotes connection to the earth, one’s self, and to others.”

The Jump Rhythm Technique is an outgrowth Siegenfeld’s role as an educator. A dance professor at Northwestern University, he has brought his technique to a number of colleges and universities, including the Arts Academy of Turku University of Applied Sciences in Finland, where he served as a Fulbright Senior Scholar.

In February of this year, the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project gave a concert at Columbia College in Chicago. It included a number pieces that will be performed at RIC, including “Poppy and Lou,” a duet with Siegenfeld and Brandi Coleman.

Reviewing the concert in Dance Magazine, Wendy Perron wrote, “All the performers had great spirit and individuality. Coleman stood out for her assurance and dramatic flair. When she danced with Siegenfeld, it was bliss.”

It looks like the audience at RIC is in for a real treat.

General admission for the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project is $15, with discounts for groups, senior citizens and students. Call (401) 456-8144.