No matter how many dark pieces Daniel Gwirtzman has turned out since starting to choreograph in 1995, he’s clearly a not-so-secret jazz baby who’s also a fan of Broadway. But a smart guy doesn’t go to a modest downtown performance space like the Joyce Soho and present a musical. That wouldn’t be the appropriately postmodern—if you’ll excuse the overworked term—thing to do. So although Gwirztman regales us with show tunes and jazz classics while we’re entering the theater to see his Encore, a “ghost light” stands onstage just the way it does in pre-performance Broadway houses, and lighting designer Julie Ana Dobo is still climbing a ladder to focus her instruments. This is a show about putting on a show.
The concept is hardly new, but Gwirtzman and his clever dancers nurse it to new life. It’s as if we’ve dropped in on a rehearsal for a projected piece. Gwirtzman and Dobo discuss lighting (it’s very colorful). Dancers chat and warm up, sit on the sidelines and watch. Often they’ll stop in mid-dance to argue a point or absorb a correction from the choreogreapher. “Remember this?” he asks Jamie Scott, as Benny Goodman’s band strikes up “Rose Room.” She does, and they start dancing, while “understudies” Christian von Howard and Stacy Martorana try—not too successfully— to pick up the tricky steps. During a break, Gwirtzman asks to hear snatches of several Duke Ellington tracks, and, amid much laughter and joking, various performers jump up and improvise to the music. Preston Miller arrives late and gets a friendly scolding from Gwirtzman before von Howard takes him aside and coaches him on what he missed.
Running gag. At various points, Cary McWilliam escorts a fellow dancer out from backstage in a costume pulled from a rack that’s part of the decor. Inevitably when the two reappear for the choreographer’s approval, the outfit is atrocious, and the dancer gives Gwirtzman a helpless “Do I have to wear this? Please say no” look. During a sexy hips-and-shoulders men’s dance by Jonathan Alsberry, Michael Novak, Corey Wright, Miller, and von Howard, McWilliam wanders in front of them holding a white gown up to herself, as if she’s standing in for a vocalist, and these guys are her eye-filling backup chorus.
I’m a pushover for dancers who can play themselves in unaffected ways—as these do extremely well—but the calculated informality could be cloying were the choreography not interesting in itself. None of Gwirtzman’s “numbers” are glitzy stuff or slick Broadway jazz. He gets under the skin of the music he loves—Ellington, Armstrong, Miller, Webb, the Dorseys, and other masters—blending casualness and precision. He’s a tall, lanky, loose-limbed guy. When he kicks a leg out, wheels his arms around, or indulges in spates of very fast, intricate steps, he stirs up the space and makes it contract and expand around him. He passes his style on to his lively performers (Madeleine Hoak and Jessica Vokoun in addition to those mentioned) without impinging on their individuality.
It’s great to see imaginative dancing to music like this—whether you’re watching Gwirtzman and von Howard intersecting to Charlie Parker’s version of “Embraceable You” (with Scott mingling with them briefly and good-humoredly), or a snappy, competitive exchange between Alsberry and Miller that involves a hat and Tommy Dorsey’s band. A standout trio for Gwirtzman, Scott, and Martorana to Benny Goodman’s rendition of the “King Porter Stomp” features a lot of leg shaking and rhythmically clever, lickety-split footwork. Scott, a bow in her hair and a flowered skirt swirling around her, performs a crazily scatty dance, her legs flying in all directions as she searches for the missing basket that Sarah Pillow sings of in her playful version of “A-Tisket A-Tasket.” Unusual lifts stud a duet for Gwirtzman and Martorana to some steamy Ellington (Martorana’s infectious, unfeigned pleasure in everything she does is one of the evening’s delights, along with Miller’s sly cool).
At some point near the end of the 80-minute work, I begin to wish for a new twist and some really clean unison. But that’s no big deal. In this case, a little too much of a good thing isn’t bad at all.