Connecting Forms with Holla Jazz

Featured Story

January 2022

Three dancers in studio move to live music, being played to their left
Hollywood Jade, Tereka Tyler-Davis, Ashley "Colours" Perez, Lowell Whitty, Scott Hunter, Ewen Farncombe, Jacob Gorzhaltsan, Alexander Brown, Tom Richards. Photo by Francesca Chudnoff

What was a career-pausing injury led to the creation of an award-winning dance company; this is the founding story of Holla Jazz, guided by Choreographer and Artistic Director Natasha Powell. The company — which caught the attention of the Toronto dance scene in 2018 with its inaugural production FLOOR’D —  showcases traditional jazz dance with contemporary forms, culminating in highly energetic, innovative, intentional yet spontaneous creations. 

Powell, born to a Jamaican father and Grenadian mother, was surrounded by dance from the start. At the height of hip hop in the nineties, her older siblings threw backyard parties. The celebratory gathering of people and music, as well as social dancing in Black culture had a profound impact on her love for and approach to the form. The works created as part of Holla Jazz pulse with life through dance and live music. 

In 2010, Powell suffered a meniscus tear and had to have knee surgery, temporarily halting her dance career. She used that time to reflect on her craft, interests and ambitions. It also caused her to think more about a documentary that she once watched and couldn’t shake: Everything Remains Raw by dance educator, author and professor Moncell Durden. The film investigates the deep-structure and Afro-Kinetic memory present in dance practices throughout the African Diaspora. Her interest in the film led to a residency in New York with Durden to learn more about the lineage of jazz dance, and how Black social dance has grown from the early 1900s to now. 

portrait on Natasha Powell
Natasha Powell

She took her learnings, including traditional vernacular jazz dances such as the “Shim Sham” and “Black Bottom,” back to Toronto and shared them with collaborators Raoul Wilke, Caroline “Lady C” Fraser and Miha Matevzic. Merging their practiced dance forms of hip hop and house together with this newly-learned dance form, they began the journey of honouring the history of jazz dance, while looking at its present and future possibilities. “Holla Jazz is this space where you can create experiences for these various forms that originated in different eras but are all connected to live and work together,” says Powell. 

Much like the ethos of Holla Jazz, Powell’s creation process originates with an idea and ensuing research (looking at imagery, reading, listening to music), which then evolves and comes to life through those working with her in the studio. “When I’m creating a piece or new work, I start with a theme that I’m interested in exploring, but then those ideas and themes become enhanced by the people in the room: the performers and collaborators that I’m working with,” explains Powell. 

This was the process that informed the creation of Dances with Trane, a collection of dances inspired by the music of prolific jazz musician John Coltrane, funded in part, through TAC’s Dance Projects program. Yet two weeks shy of its premiere at the Meridian Dance Theatre, COVID-19 ripped through the world and everything changed. The premiere has been postponed since then, as Powell opted not to turn it into a film or a livestream. “I create work for that in person, live experience,” explains Powell, “So for [Dances with Trane] it wouldn’t do the form, dancers and musicians justice by turning it into a livestream.” Instead, Powell had the opportunity to pitch a video series concept to DanceWorks as part of their Moving Online project. Using pre-filmed footage captured by dancer and filmmaker Kristine Flores, the series, called 12 Notes, presents short vignettes featuring Holla Dance collaborators speaking about their experiences in the company. To allow viewers the opportunity to hear from the artists was very important for Powell when creating the concept. 

Five dancers in studio practice a dance move
Tereka Tyler-Davis, Raoul Wilke, Miha Matevzic, Natasha Powell, Ashley "Colours" Perez, Hollywood Jade, Caroline "Lady C" Fraser. Photo by Francesca Chudnoff

Working as an artist during the pandemic continues to be difficult for many, but artists and arts organizations are great at finding innovative ways to bring new work to audiences. As one of two Artists in Residence for Fall for Dance North, alongside Calgary-based artist Kimberley Cooper, Powell was invited to present work in the west wing of Union Station in fall 2021. Using photography and augmented reality, people were able to scan QR codes with their phones to view stills of dancers come to life with pre-recorded dance videos. Powell’s work with Fall for Dance North is continuing as she’s currently creating a new work for its 2022 iteration. 

As for Dances with Trane? “It’s not gone: I can’t wait to share it with the world on stage and in person, live,” says Powell. Toronto can’t wait either.