Jazz music, it seems, is in rude health in the 21st century – whether from youthful players, or its influence on hip hop and electronic music. But one part of jazz culture is still thoroughly under-appreciated, even though its roots go down as deep and as far back in time as the music: jazz dance.
Two British documentarians, though, are determined to change that. With their team, director Khadifa Wong and writer/choreographer Zak Nemorin, both also with a history in professional dance, have put together a stunning documentary in UPROOTED. With huge amounts of interview footage beautifully shot dance sequences and patient pacing that comes from absolute confidence, it unfolds decades upon decades of history from the African origins of American dance styles through to the present day.
The documentary addresses, with honest anger, marginalisation and segregation, and examines how the elements of jazz dance found their way to the mainstream via Hollywood and hip hop. It’s clear that there was a sense of mission behind this film, and we wanted to find out more – so we spoke to Wong and Nemorin about their motives for making it, and how they feel their work has turned out.
Director Khadifa Wong (left) and writer/choreographer Zak Nemorin (right)
JOE MUGGS: Congratulations on completing this ambitious film; how are you feeling about it now you've got a little distance? Are you the type of people to know when a project feels complete and say “that’s it”?
KHADIFA WONG: Thank you very much. Now we have some distance, I really am just so proud of what we as a team have achieved with the film. It's been nice to step back and look at everyone's individual contributions and how wonderful it has been to get the right people on the journey with us. I still have things I would like to change, but I also do feel happy with it as a completed piece and any changes may affect what people have said they liked... So, I have said “That's it" – but with all that being said, if I get the opportunity to go back in, I definitely would!
ZAK NEMORIN: Like any artist, the work is never completely finished, and you always find moments that you wish to either change or alter. I think the trick is to take a step back, look at the overall picture and ask yourself the question, if I changed anything now would that ruin what has already been achieved?
The same could be said for an artist with a paintbrush or an author of a book. The beauty of our team is that we worked well in being open together and collectively agreeing when to perhaps say, "That's it".
JM: What made you, as British filmmakers, pick essentially American history as your subject? Did you find it easy to keep the focus on that or were you tempted to expand further - after all, the U.K. has its own distinct jazz dance history, especially in club culture?
KW: I didn't view this from a British perspective: as a Black woman, the themes and issues that were in the film superseded any sense of "Britishness" I felt. Whilst the U.K. may have its own jazz culture, appropriation, migration and transmission are just as prevalent, and so what drew me to this project was the universality of the themes that we highlighted and focused on.
ZN: I have been a jazz dancer for most of my life, so I felt passionate about trying to tell the story of the art form I love. Jazz dance is so widespread across the globe. So, I felt this story needed to be heard. As far as I have been aware, there has never been a documentary that explored jazz dance as a whole before. You can find much information about separate entities of the genre but little that pulls it together.
The book Jazz Dance - A History of the Roots and the Branches [by Lindsay Guarino], which does document jazz dance in this way was the first book I picked up and as an educator myself said, "Something like this in a visual form should exist as we live in a world which seems to be driven by what people see". To that effect, why hadn't something like this been created before? When we delved deep into the social and political issues that run simultaneously to the form, I was of the school of thought, that not being American, might allow us to look at the bigger picture and perhaps have less bias or agenda and as honestly as we could, collate as many ideas and viewpoints from all walks of life in the field, to try and ignite conversations that people may not have been previously having.
JM: What were your greatest discoveries in making the film - in terms of history you didn't know, or great characters you made contact with?
KW: For me, it was discovering all the people that had been omitted from history, knowing I had been robbed of such a rich history makes you angry, but the joy in now being able to read about such greats as Pepsi Bethel and JoJo Smith has been extremely rewarding. Every single person we interviewed was a wonderful character in themselves, they all have had a full and unique experience and it was such a privilege to hear their stories, so much didn't make it into the film so I feel very fortunate to have been present to hear so much wonderful history.
ZN: As Khadifa said, there're so many artists that may have been forgotten in time that I was unaware of. But what was most exciting for me, was that after interviewing so many different artists, my own views of jazz dance were almost validated, which made me feel less alone in my personal fight to elevate the form to a better-respected position within established thinking. It felt like the whole process was enriching my own understanding of a form I hold so dear. We never stop learning!
JM: Dance has a strange place in the arts and pop culture – it’s often pushed into the background, there are few high profile ambassadors, if it's showcased on TV it's through showbizzy contests... how much sense of mission did you have in making this film in terms of how dance is presented?
KW: How dance was presented was our original mission, the film only moved into social and political territory once I started researching and delving into the subject. Both Zak and I really felt strongly about making a film for dancers and it was this belief that led us to Lisa Donmall-Reeve our Producer who is herself a very talented dancer and in turn to Matt Simpkins our DP who also trained in dance. We surrounded ourselves with dancers because we knew they would help us tell the most authentic story.
ZN: Perhaps after this film is seen by the world (fingers crossed!), jazz dance will gain more respect and be brought forward to the forefront? But like anything in this world, what goes around comes around. Jazz is no different. It has moments of popularity and moments where it takes a step back. What would be great is if artists create more informed bodies of work and not just concentrate on the most popular step or movement of the time. In turn, this might invigorate and inspire not just the dance world, but general communities which may have never looked at dance before, which again, in turn, might build demand for it.
JM: You gave a deep and considered interview to the Factual America podcast, and early on you say you're "in continued dialogue": could you expand on that? Does it feel like the added layers of dialogue when you talk about the film in podcasts – and even in an interview like this – are a work in progress themselves?
KW: To remain relevant jazz dance and people have to remain in continued dialogue to survive. If this pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have taught us anything it is that speaking truth to power is essential for us to move forward. We are still on a journey and so everyone we speak to gives us more information and allows us time to process and solidify our thoughts.
ZN: I couldn't put it better than Khadifa already has!
JM: We seem to be in a time of serious renaissance for jazz music as a grassroots form, particularly played by black musicians – whether that's Kamasi Washington/Makaya McCraven/Matana Roberts in the U.S. or Shabaka Hutchings/Nubya Garcia/Moses Boyd in the U.K. Does the dance world have a connection to that? What are your feelings about the current state of jazz dance, and where do you see it progressing in the near future?
KW: It's great we are having a renaissance and I would hope that the dance world is aligning itself with that. They need funding to do that though, getting dancers and musicians together can be costly and that can be one of the reasons why the dance world is so dependent on recorded music. I see jazz dance flourishing because so many members of the community are having those vital conversations we have been missing. I have been seeing so much more renewed curiosity and even more creativity, so I am very excited by what the future holds!
ZN: Jazz dance is regrowing once again... There is a thirst for it as it comes from the community. What is humanity without dance? I would say empty. During the pandemic we have been starved of one of our basic human needs, to "get down" and move together as one. Whether this is in the clubs or on the West End and Broadway stages, Jazz Dance is the embodiment of coming together for the greater good. So when the virus eventually subsides (which it will), dancers, musicians, storytellers, all other artists and the general population alike will be ready to move and be moved. As the old African proverb says: "When the music changes, so too does the dance".
Uprooted will have its international premiere at Raindance Film Festival on 4 November 2020.
Cover image: Vibecke Dahle
Photos: Vibecke Dahle & Daryl Getman
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs