In 1968, the Giordano Dance Company, then just 5 years old, performed American jazz dance for the touring Bolshoi Ballet.
The Russian dance company was so impressed that it extended an invitation to the young company to tour the Soviet Union, which it did in 1974. The focus on jazz dance led the company to a new name, Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, and the distinction of being the world’s first jazz dance company.
On Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. the Hawaii Concert Society will present Giordano Dance Chicago at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center. The multiethnic company of 10 athletic dancers, which performed here in 2008 and is currently in its 50th anniversary season, continues to expand the boundaries of jazz dance, captivating audiences worldwide with dynamic performances and the diversity and wide appeal of its repertoire.
Ending a long tradition this year, the company has dropped “jazz” from its name.
“We’ve grown into a repertory company,” Nan Giordano, artistic director and daughter of the company founder, Gus, said. “Our mission has always been to take audiences on a journey we call jazz dance. But I don’t think that means we necessarily have to perform to jazz music.”
The troupe has always performed to an eclectic mix, including pop standards, Broadway favorites and, in recent years, hip-hop and other contemporary styles.
“The jazz label has been confusing,” she said. “Some people thought it meant we only performed to jazz.”
The roots of jazz dance are the African American vernacular dance from the late 1800s up until the mid 1900s. During the jazz era, popular forms of jazz dance were Cakewalk, Black Bottom, Charleston, Jitterbug, Boogie Woogie, and Lindy Hop (aka Swing), all of which were commonly danced to jazz music.
Gus Giordano, who was born in St. Louis in 1924, started dancing at age 5, and studied, learned and performed wherever he could, including on Mississippi riverboats. He developed a specific jazz movement vocabulary and style, wrote a definitive text, and codified what had been largely improvised into a specific technique.
Jazz dance is notable for its strong, earthy technique and a coolly intense emphasis on plie and eye contact with the audience.
“The dancers have to be well trained in ballet and have a lot of stamina, but more important, they have to dance from inside,” Giordano said. In other words, the company wants dancers with attitude, who can express as much with their souls as they do with their soles.
Because the Giordano technique stresses purity of movement over highly stylized tricks and gestures, dancers trained in it can easily adapt to a variety of styles. And jazz dance itself also continues to evolve.
Tickets for the Feb. 10 performance are $25 general, $20 for seniors and $12 for students and are available at the Most Irresistible Shop, Book Gallery, Music Exchange, the UHH Box Office, and the East Hawaii Cultural Center. Remaining tickets will be available at the door.
Giordano Dance Chicago dancer Lindsey LaFountain will give a master class for intermediate or higher dance students, ages 13 and older at Center Stage Dance Studio in downtown Hilo on Feb. 9 at 10:30 a.m. Contact the studio at 990-7163 for further information.
The company is also giving educational performances at Kamehameha Schools and at the UHHPAC for schoolchildren on Feb. 11 and 12. These educational performances are fully booked.
“My challenge now is to continue, expand, and embellish what my father has done, and to bring the art form of American jazz dance to new audiences around the world,” Giordano said.
The Hilo performance will include seven dances. Among them, “Giordano Moves” is an homage to the classic style of the company’s legendary founder, who died as the company was touring Hawaii in 2008. “The Man That Got Away” is a witty and stylish duet set to music by Ira Gershwin as sung by Judy Garland.
And in the finale, “Jolt,” an energetic, whimsical look at the effect caffeine has on people through a “normal” day, and probably the most demanding work on the program, the dancers push the theme, until by the end of the piece, they’re moving at a breakneck speed. It has proven to be an overwhelming crowd-pleaser.