Uprooted – Raindance Film Festival 2020 – Film Review

All that jazz, jazz hands, razzle dazzle – these are all terms associated with that dynamic West End performance style of jazz dance but Uprooted captivatingly delves deeper into the genre. Uprooted traverses the roots of jazz with its problematic past within American culture to provide a tale that is rich, sensual, rhythmic but equally informative. Uprooted is soulful, intoxicating and uplifting and leaves its imprint as it poses such political and social questions that are usually unexpected from a dance documentary. Uprooted has its International Premiere within the Raindance Film Festival 2020.

With a Who’s Who of dancers and choreographers making appearances including, Bonnie Langford, Debbie Allen, Arlene Phillips, Mandy Moore and Craig Revel-Horwood, Uprooted will pierce into the soul through its musicality and thought provoking quick edits. It would be easy to forget that Uprooted is a documentary as it is filmed with a stylistic flair resembling a Broadway musical performance. Broadway is, of course, a focal reference for the film as many jazz dance routines can be witnessed on the stage. Cleverly, Uprooted intersperses such imagery with historical black and white footage of early dances such as the Cake Walk. Uprooted reveals that this dance style’s origins derive from a colonial past during the times of the slavery of many people from African countries. As much as Uprooted is enthralling and invigorating, the film is unafraid to dissect the political and racial narrative embedded within jazz dance.

Moncell Durden’s dulcet tones describe jazz dance as an art form born from the black communities. It is therefore acknowledged as being from the streets compared to the other forms of dance such as ballet, which were perceived to embody classical dance and therefore given a monetary value. We are told that ‘jazz is about humanity’ and as the narrators outline such dimensions, it is obvious that there were many pioneers who were overlooked. Bob Fosse is recognised for the dramatic style of jazz dance typically associated with Broadway musicals, however there is that lack of reverence for his predecessors such as Pepsi Bethel who founded the authentic jazz dance theatre and was an early lindy hop dancer.

Dancers from Decidedly Jazz Danceworks in Uprooted
Dancers from Decidedly Jazz Danceworks in Uprooted

Uprooted serves as that history and dance lesson skilfully immersing its audience within the hypnotic quick edits of dance routines and educating with a history lesson in the next scene. Images are shown of dance routines performed in the Savoy ballroom, which was the only integrated public space for social dances which emerged from those early Nigerian dances such as the Juba dance. It is fascinating to watch the evolution of such dance steps to progress to familiar ones such as the renowned moonwalk. Indeed, the Cake Walk is the foundation of many Broadway dance routines to this day.

Uprooted equally addresses that concept of appropriation, given that so many of these dance styles emerged within contemporary and modern dance forms without the same level of respect directed towards the jazz dance art form. ‘You don’t know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’re from’ and indeed the history of jazz dance does not appear to have been given that spotlight before Uprooted was made.

Hollywood Jade and Sarah Tumaliuen of Holla Jazz in Uprooted
Hollywood Jade and Sarah Tumaliuen of Holla Jazz in Uprooted

Director Khadifa Wong wanted to emphasise the political nature of jazz but equally to stress its merits as jazz should be on a par with other dance forms such as ballet. Uprooted is Wong’s feature length directorial debut and projects a strong message. It is an impressive and immersive film both celebratory of the fluidity and rhythm of jazz dance but also unapologetic in its quest for recognition. As Wong has stated, there is that lack of appreciation for the art form of jazz dance despite being oft copied. An increase in the funding directed towards jazz dance would certainly assist with its continual evolution and progression. As a former dancer, Uprooted is certainly a personal project for Wong and her admiration of the art form is obvious with the soothing quick edits of the dancers and the poetic quality to the film.

The sound editing within Uprooted is extremely impressive with synchronisation with the various dance routines performed by the Holla Jazz dance company to intoxicating effect. Not only does Uprooted impress visually but its insistence on highlighting jazz dance’s historical links to slavery and subsequent social transformation results in a film that is grounded in reality but insightful.

Uprooted casts a spell over its audience through its celebration of the jazz dance movement and its ambience depicting triumph over adversity. As one of forty dance experts, in the film, states, ‘to go forward, we have to go back’. Indeed, Uprooted with its elegant flair takes us on this historical journey through jazz dance’s musicality which will pierce our soul with its celebration and provides hope for the future progression of jazz dance.

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