In New Orleans, the music of the streets, including brass bands and Mardi Gras Indian percussion, inform more formal jazz arrangements. At the Marigny Opera House's New Dance Festival, parade steps inspired a couple of the choreographers' commissioned works. New Orleanian Donna Crump incorporates Mardi Gras Indian themes and music into her piece, and Diogo de Lima relates the cultures of his native Brazil and current home in the Crescent City.
"In New Orleans, when people dance to jazz, they are always grounded," de Lima says. "When you hear the beat of a second line coming the first thing you do is bend your knees and get grounded to the ground. Everything pretty much starts from the hips down, and the entire body just reacts. In Brazil, it's the same thing with the samba. We're grounded. We mark our tempo with our feet instead of upper body. You build the rhythm inside your body. We all dance from inside out, both places."
The New Dance Festival (Sept. 26-29) features six new works split into two programs. The first program includes work choreographed by Crump, Chard Gonzalez and Kettye Voltz and runs Thursday and Friday. The second program features work by de Lima, Monica Ordonez and Maya Taylor, and it runs Saturday and Sunday. Each dance is performed to live music, and for his piece de Lima enlisted John Boutte. The two met in 2003 when de Lima visited New Orleans while performing with the Brazilian troupe Grupo Corpo.
"(Boutte) knew I was from Brazil, and he starts singing a song from [Brazilian composer] Djavan, and he sang in Portuguese," de Lima recalls. "Since then we became very good friends, but we never had an opportunity to work together."
Boutte will perform some of the Brazilian songs he's recorded over the years, including "Black Orpheus" and "All About Everything," while de Lima's choreography will combine styles of movement common to New Orleans and Brazil.
De Lima studied at the Royal Academy of Dance in London before returning to his native Brazil to join the contemporary dance company Grupo Corpo. Now teaching at Tulane, de Lima's piece South/South examines the relationship between the cultures of South America and the American South.
Crump studied dance at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in dance from Tulane University. Last year she started her own company, Good Dance Since 1984, and it has performed at the Boston Contemporary Dance Festival and the New Orleans Fringe Festival.
Crump also is a Big Queen of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and her composition Keeper of the Flame pays tribute to her upbringing and features music by the tribe's Big Chief Brian Nelson.
Keeper of the Flame depicts the intertribal battles on Fat Tuesday, when tribes take to the streets to show off their new suits. Crump deploys dancers in duos and trios to mimic the aggressive posturing that happens between tribes and resolves the tension in a joyous Carnival celebration.
"The Indians don't really have any steps; it's a freestyle of whatever your spirit feels," Crump says. "The drums wake your spirit and whatever comes out, comes out. I wanted to take this beautiful culture with sewing, beading, scissors and drumming and turn it into contemporary movement. I incorporated very simple movements from the Indian culture as well as some classical ballet, some contemporary and some modern dance."
The festival was created by Marigny Opera House director Dave Hurlbert, who has played piano at classical music presentations at the venue. But Hurlbert says his true passion is for dance, and he hopes to help develop the local dance community.
"Over the past year I've been meeting a lot of dancers and choreographers who are moving to New Orleans, or moving back to New Orleans, from all over — from Los Angeles, New York, Chicago — and that's very exciting," he says. "The talent here in the dance community is increasing by leaps and bounds."
The festival accepted applications for new works, and incorporating live music was a requirement. Hurlbert reviewed the projects along with George Smallwood, a dancer with the New York-based Paul Taylor Dance Company, and Aubrey Morgan, a former member of the New York City Ballet. Each choreo-grapher selected for the festival received a stipend to develop a new work.
Hurlbert believes that presenting new work will help build a dance following as well.
"To build an audience for dance, you present a lot of dance," Hulbert says. "The more you present, the more people are going to see it. The more they see, the more knowledgeable and appreciative I think they're going to become. That's my theory, and I think it's starting to happen."