Jimi Hendrix and Dance

I wrote this back when I was a dance critic. This was the piece that landed me a job at SF Weekly, back when Andrew O'Hehir, and Laura Miller were editors, a great period in the history of the weekly. Laura Miller is my favorite book reviewer and writer she has gone on to write for all the major venues, and like Andrew she became one of the founders of Salon Magazine.

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Jimi Hendrix’s music has rarely been highlighted in concert dance, but Bebe Miller’s The Hendrix Project is changing that with an inspired choreographic portrait of the late guitarist’s genius, one of four exceptional performance pieces presented by the Black Choreographers Festival.

Miller used live cuts of Hendrix’s music including the famous Star Spangled Banner, some blues, some jams. The dance had a Summer of Love flavor--blending naiveté and nonchalance and tons of the wild thing—but what this dance was really about was the music. Hendrix can be wild, sweet, sad, stoned, spiritual, torrential, but most of all I suppose, loose. An instinctive physicality is a trademark of his style: he never liked to be far from his guitar, played it day and night, keeping it close to his body. The flow between control and abandon is one of the musician’s greatest achievements, and Miller united these polarities in three group ensembles, two duets, and one solo. The choreography used a loose rippling of the chest and neck with a low down, bent over crouch to create a drug-induced Woodstocky refrain, repeated again and again.

The dancers’ moments of stillness evoked the control in Hendrix’s music. After whip-like turns, they stop and pause precariously, hold bent legs and floppy hands high, balanced and in perfect control, yet giving the appearance of devil-may-care ease—just like Hendrix’s most tantalizing riffs where he skillfully teases around a note and drags it out easily, the music stretching on and on in the same frequency. In fact when Miller did her solo, it often appeared she was going to stop, but she didn’t. She kept getting higher in energy, like a musician that simply can’t stop stretching a riff.

The private reveries in Hendrix's improvisations were suggested by the dancers’ use of space close to the body, by the downward cast eyes, and by repeating movements with their backs facing the audience. There was also a vulnerable stance repeated in all five of the dance’s sections, a simple standing with frontal exposure, arms high, palms open: Here I am, all of me. Then, whoosh, back into some mean riff and turn.

The choreography loosened even more as Hendrix’s melodies got wilder and more expressive. When the music got back to solid ground, so did the dancers as they fell back into clear unison. Ken Tabachnick’s stage lighting had an near improvisational relationship with the music and slid into lights and darks with a free-form intensity. It helped highlight the erotic tensions in the duets; they pulled, extenuated, and pushed the moments of contact in true tease-you-to-the–fullest Hendrix style.

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