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Modern meets jazz: the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company.

Swing Night
By Mae G. Banner

Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company
The Egg, May 1

Two premieres and a bonus set by Laurel Massé and her jazz quartet made Ellen Sinopoli’s spring dance concert fly. Getting two shows in one was like hitting the lottery.

Massé, a founder and alumna of Manhattan Transfer, has been living upstate for the last few years and singing solo at regional clubs. She also hosts the live monthly Laurel Massé Show on the WAMC network. At the Egg, she and her quartet did a sophisticated jazz set you’d normally hear at the Van Dyck. Later, Massé sang an a capella set, modal and folklike, but with a slightly syncopated jazz undertone that had the room enraptured—utterly quiet.

Jammin’, Sinopoli’s newest collaboration, takes the five-member modern dance company into the realm of 1940s-era swing dancing. Adrian Warnock- Graham, an Albany-based lindy hop-master, set the dance in effervescent motion with a springy, slippery solo to Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” while Massé sang a vocalese aria to the sax part.

The quartet of piano, sax, bass, and drums matched Warnock-Graham’s finger paint moves, swirl for swirl.

Jammin’ is a nicely varied suite that segues from the bopping “Oleo” to a languorous “Lazy Afternoon” and concludes with the exuberant “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” All three songs come from Massé’s 1990 CD, but with new arrangements. She sang them all on her April 28 WAMC show, and it was fun to hear them again, especially with dancers adding another dimension.

Swing dancing, at heart, is a conversation between the dancers and the players. In Jammin’ Sinopoli brings together members of two tribes, the lindys and the moderns, and makes it smooth as a drugstore malt. As “Oleo” subsides, Yukiko Sumiya, a lovely dancer with a touch of comedy, glides in on a skateboard to open “Lazy Afternoon.” She does ballet splits and breast strokes on the board until Warnock-Graham enters, takes her by one toe, and lifts her to the floor. They gyrate down together like a pair of corkscrews, knees bent.

Their dance looks serendipitous, full of somersaults, cartwheels, and slo-mo aerials, but it’s a perfect fit between two bodies. One dancer’s every knob is tucked neatly into the other’s recess.

The duet morphs into a trio when tall, blonde Sarah Pingel and petite Laura Spaziani join Warnock-Graham in Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.” We see the lindy man teach the modern dancers a new language with terms like the Shorty George, the Charleston, and the Texas Tommy—hot truckin’ and kicky pirouettes.

Sinopoli is a choreographer who mines the talents of artists in many fields. She gets real sparks when she brings disparate artists together.

Sinopoli also is open to all kinds of music. In the evening’s other premiere, Rising Low, the choreographer draws on modal laments by Iris DeMent and Michelle Shocked and Delta blues by Otis Taylor to inspire a suite of lowdown dances. Low, as in blue, and literally low to the ground, the dancers knelt with their backs to the audience and their legs splayed out in a striking V-shape. Or, they clustered on four folding chairs, while Pingel, shoulders rounded in despair, danced her solo sorrow.

Rising Low is a mature work for Sinopoli. She lets emotion in. The dance has a gutsy, earthy feel, with forceful backward kicks cut by that kneeling motif. One trio section evokes a country train, always traveling, getting nowhere.

The concert opened with Pierre’s Words, (1997) set to original music by Joel Chadabe and a multilingual wordplay by poet Pierre Joris. The dancers, Eve Di Taranto and Spaziani, were overshadowed by Joris’s voice-over, which I found exaggerated and needlessly fraught. Sinopoli’s choreography is on the analytic side, polished, athletic, like contact improv, but with no felt connection between the dancers.

Winged, expanded and deepened beyond its 2003 premiere at the Egg, is one of Sinopoli’s best works because it rises naturally from its theme of soaring. She sets her dancers in sculptural groupings or flings them like a handful of jacks across the stage. It’s a shapely dance, always changing, always interesting. You want to see what will happen next.

Winged, to recorded Celtic songs and poems sung and read by Siobhan Quinn, has a strong vertical thrust. The dancers repeat a stance with one arm raised straight up. Standing before a red-lit backdrop, their bodies glowing gold, they look like seabirds on Ireland’s western cliffs—a magical image.

Now, about that bonus concert: Massé, in a strappy red evening gown, and her quartet, in tuxes, played soulful, urbane standards, including Billie Holiday’s “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” Massé has a lush voice, an unbelievable range, and a taste for scat singing that’s lively and free of clichés. The sax and piano solos were deft and intelligent, turning the Egg into a late-night jazz club. How cool is that?

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