Away to Create: New documentary highlights Ryerson performers’ revitalization of jazz

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By Kaylee Chu

The international Fall for Dance North (FFDN) festival is returning this month, with the largest line-up in its seven-year history. Running from Sept. 11 to Oct. 29, the festival will present a hybrid approach of in-person performances and digital content for its audience around the globe, featuring the talents of many Ryerson students.

A woman wearing patterned mask and all black clothing leads a dance class
Choreographer Natasha Powell leads students in vernacular jazz dance

This year, the Ryerson School of Performance (RSP) continues to mark its presence at the festival with the premiere of a short documentary, Away to Create. The film features FFDN artist-in-residence Natasha Powell and 11 RSP students in an isolated, two-week residency at the Orillia Centre for Arts and Culture.

Brought together through passion and collective efforts, the project documents the development of a new vernacular jazz work, with the help of two Ryerson production students and Powell’s assistant, Tereka Tyler-Davis. 

Two fourth-year RSP students, Alysis Davis and Monique Pascall, who began dancing at a young age, are among the 11 residents who teamed up for the film. 

“It’s a great group of individuals that we have here,” said Pascall. “We’re being educated [on jazz] as we’re creating this piece. It’s not just about learning movements or the essence of jazz, but also about how it became, how it was created and how the music is.”

Away to Create follows the development of the dancers’ relationship with jazz over time, as their understanding and experiences in the genre expand.

“It’s just so different from what everyone thinks jazz is. [People think] it’s like the elevator music that you hear, but it’s just not the same,” said Davis. 

The creator’s hope is to convey the beauty and meaning of jazz in its authentic form. 

“The mainstream part of jazz has been very Eurocentric for a long time”

With a long history and mixture of cultures, jazz was invented by Black communities in New Orleans, La. According to an article by The Michigan Daily, those “who listen to and play jazz music are still largely unaware of jazz’s uniquely African American essence,” detaching the art from its cultural origins.

“The mainstream part of jazz has been very Eurocentric for a long time, so having this opportunity to perform the true version of jazz and share it with others, I would want anyone to feel the authenticity of jazz and what it should be,’’ said Pascall. 

“Especially with this experience and coming into Ryerson, a lot of us had a new awakening of what jazz was actually supposed to be.” 

According to Pascall, while this project has been a positive experience so far, the pandemic has imposed some challenges for the students taking part. 

“Because we have to wear masks when we’re fully together, it takes away from having a connection with the entire team,” said Pascall. “We’re still trying to push and create a space where lovers of art can enjoy and dance again, even though there are live streams and pre-recorded videos.”

For students involved in this documentary, the pandemic has undoubtedly shifted their perspective towards jazz and the experience of dance as a whole. They hope to bring out a positive and joyful energy in the audience, focusing on what COVID-19 has allowed them to feel and explore. 

“We now know that we can’t take anything for granted because it can be taken away from us at any moment. It really changes the way we all dance,” said Davis. 

“A lot of people our age are performing and creating things [during the pandemic] that are more emotional or on the sad side of things. [The film] is so upbeat, happy and groovy, something that people watch and feel happy, and wish they are participating with us while we are dancing.”

Away to Create will premiere online on Sept. 17 at FFDN’s website, in addition to a live-streamed performance on Oct. 15 as part of the Orillia Jazz Festival. For more information on tickets and events, visit the FFDN website.

A group of students stand on stage in a theatre, five kneeling in front
All 11 dancers involved in the project are in Rye’s School of Performance

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