by Judith Hamera
If you took classes in jazz dance in the American Midwest from the mid-1960s through the new millennium, you almost certainly encountered the work of Gus Giordano whether you knew it or not. Maybe one of his LPs was the score for your barre or for crossing the floor. Maybe you used his syllabus and barre exercises. Maybe your teacher had a battered, beloved copy of one of his books, perhaps Anthology of American Jazz Dance, that you thumbed through before class to discover a diverse roster of dance artists you never knew existed—artists like Bob Fosse whom, you realized, your high school music-theatre choreographer was currently imitating . . . badly (figs.1–2). I did all of these things in a little storefront studio in Detroit, and ultimately took classes at what was, in the 1980s, the “mother ship”: Giordano’s Evanston, Illinois, dance center on Davis Street.
From the 1970s through the time of his death in 2008, Giordano was inarguably both a national and global figure: a dancer, teacher, author, codifier of a technical vocabulary still in use, and a choreographer; founder and director of both a successful dance company that continues to commission and perform and an active school; founder of the Jazz Dance World Congress; and recipient of the Katherine Dunham and Dance Educators of America awards for excellence, to name only a few of his achievements and honors. There are not one but two “Gus Giordano Days”: one for Illinois and the other for Chicago. He had an impeccable modern dance pedigree: studying with pioneering modernists Hanya Holm, Alwin Nikolais, and Dunham in New York, where he performed in Broadway musicals before moving to Evanston and opening his school in 1953. The film version of his dance, The Rehearsal, won a local Emmy Award forits broadcast on Chicago’s PBS affiliate, WTTW, in 1980, and was broadcast in other major US media markets (fig. 3). It was last performed in 2001 or 2002 and has not been revived—a now-forgotten triumph that seemed unintentionally funny to at least some dance scholars who recently viewed the film, much to my surprise.
The dearth of scholarly attention to Giordano as a key figure in late-twentieth-century jazz history is inversely proportional to both this record of accomplishment and to his potential to illuminate the ways in which white class and race anxieties were transmuted into theatrical jazz dance at a pivotal time of economic transition. My essay for the June 2019 print issue of Theatre Journal, “Rehearsal Problems,” uses Giordano’s The Rehearsal as a historical document, as an example of Giordano’s 1970s and early ’80s aesthetic, and as a pivotal moment in his career to discuss the ways that these anxieties are literally staged in the piece. In his choreography for The Rehearsal, Giordano sutured ballet, the dance he described as “based in the cranium,” to Africanist idioms as what I term a “warrant of whiteness”: a way to class up jazz dance for the middlebrow students and audiences that were his core constituency. Further, despite his reputation for an earnest middlebrow theatricality that at least one New York critic found “tedious,” The Rehearsal offers a surprisingly sardonic view of dance as a form of professional capital during a period of structural economic change that hit his Midwest audiences especially hard.1
My goal in writing “Rehearsal Problems” was to contextualize Giordano’s The Rehearsal within the fraught liminality of the twentieth-century white middlebrow, the racial and class liminalities of American theatrical jazz dance, and the pivotal period of the late 1970s and early ’80s when a structural economic shift from manufacturing to financialization was becoming increasingly obvious. Indeed, this award-winning dance is almost allegorical in its abilities to figure these tensions. But even more importantly, I hope to trouble questions of who and what merits scholarly attention in dance, theatre, and performance studies. Forgotten triumphs of neglected artists and middlebrow cultural production might invite further inquiry into local structures of aesthetic value shaped by race and class position and class aspiration: structures that may differ from familiar narratives of concert dance history. And they might rehearse some surprisingly contemporary dilemmas, including the equivocal utility of professional capital and solidarity in transitional economic times. Gus Giordano may be less well known than Bob Fosse and less copied by high school music-theatre choreographers, but a closer look at his award-winning dance exposes precisely those warrants of whiteness and fraught liminalities central to whitened jazz dance that the latter’s slinky seductiveness so deftly conceals.
1 Jennifer Dunning, “Gus Giordano and His Chicago Troupe,” New York Times, March 2, 1981, available at https://www.nytimes.com/1981/03/02/arts/jazz-dance-gus-giordano-and-his-chicago-troupe.html.