by Zoe Boden
The first time I met Sheron Wray was in trendy Mayfair club, Momo’s. Laptop in lap, sipping tea from Moroccan glasses, and occasionally nibbling bread dripping with salsa verde, Sheron shines with confidence, determination and ambition. When aged only 22, she set up her groundbreaking company JazzXchange, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary.
Persuading jazz genius Wynton Marsalis, British jazz singer Dame Cleo Laine and the late, great American dancer Jane Dudley to become her patrons was only one of the many innovative things she has achieved in the past ten years. In-between her rehearsals and international commitments I was lucky enough to spend a few hours with one of our most talented and truly innovative British choreographers.
As a child, Sheron describes herself as a ‘dancing whirlwind’. In 1987 she took a place at London Contemporary Dance School and swiftly progressed under the tutelage of her mentor Jane Dudley. Growing up in London, Sheron was surrounded by jazz music and dance, and she quickly became a passionate performer and dance advocate.
After being awarded an apprenticeship with the now defunct London Contemporary Dance Theatre, she moved on to become a leading member of the Rambert Dance Company, performing Dudley’s seminal work ‘Harmonica Breakdown’ for BBC TV’s Summerdance. Talking to Sheron, you can’t help but be inspired by her outstanding energy and determination. She discusses intelligently and fervently the place of dance in today’s culture, excitedly reminiscing about her beloved teacher.
Sheron herself is an established teacher and watching her in rehearsals I can easily see why. Listening to her explain the intricacies of the score and demonstrate with passion the phrasing is awe-inspiring. Yet, Sheron is also one of the most down to earth people I have ever met.
To be honest, she completely captured my interest within a few conversations. It soon became apparent that Sheron has this affect on people as she is surrounded by a team of incredibly talented, energetic and loyal people from all walks of life. She certainly reminded me that with determination, belief and honesty anything can be made possible.
Sheron’s latest success appeared in the form of a collaboration with her patron Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Two years of transatlantic conversations snatched between rehearsals, touring and performances finally culminated last December in confirmation that JazzXchange had been invited to perform on stage at the Barbican with the LCJO.
This was a dream come true, and while the rest of us ate, drank and got merry over the Christmas break, Sheron and her amazingly dedicated team were madly beginning Lucky for Some. Starting a new work from scratch requires time, energy and money. Sheron may have been stretched financially, and with a performance date looming less than two months away, she certainly didn’t have time to stand still, but one thing this woman does have in ridiculously large amounts is energy! And everyone involved agreed that this opportunity wasn’t going to pass them by.
On January 27th 2003 Lucky for Some was premiered to a full house at the Barbican Centre, London. I was lucky enough to get a ticket, (it had been sold-out for months), and despite having seen the piece in rehearsal, I was absolutely blown away. Where now in contemporary dance can you see real passion, honest enjoyment, and intelligent sensitivity from each performer? I was truly moved by the three short pieces dedicated to Jane Dudley, and so, it would seem, were the press.
Despite mostly being reviewed by the jazz critics, Lucky For Some was hailed as a sweeping success, The Times called it ‘the most impressive moment’ of the whole evening.
Collaborating with famous names is no new thing for Sheron. She has worked with Paul Gladstone Reid and the London Musici at the Royal Albert Hall, and The Julian Joseph Quartet in a Southbank commission that led to her guest appearance on TV’s Jazz with Julian Joseph. In 1999 she choreographed the Carnival for the Opening Ceremony at the infamous Dome, and in 2000 became one of the first Artist’s in Residence at the Royal Opera House.
Jazzxchange Music and Dance Company celebrates the principles of jazz music and applies them equally to dance. Sheron repeatedly stresses the equity of music and dance and continues her research into their parity. “Dance and music for me makes a conclusive whole. Both can exist separately, however the sum of them both goes beyond their independent parts. I can see that dance and music create a synergy so powerful it cannot go unnoticed.” she explains. Watching her perform, I can see it too. Never have music and dance seemed so interconnected.
Of course all choreographers acknowledge the influence of music upon their choreography, many work directly with their composers to create an original score, but always it seems to be a one way relationship. Sheron is devoted to exploring a different approach.
Sheron recently completed a masters degree at Middlesex University where she developed and compounded her work on dance improvisation. Sheron expands “My concept connects the living, breathing dancer with the living, breathing musician. The result is that the audience experience a real connection with the communication that is going on between the artists.”
This is exactly what I had experienced at The Barbican performance; a deeper understanding of the dancers’ performance process, an empathy with them I hadn’t felt before. Sheron’s improvisation process is fascinating. After completing her MA, she was awarded a NESTA three year fellowship which allows her to continue her research.
NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, supports and promotes talent, innovation and creativity, or so their mission statement reads. Sheron explains the practical value of this award; “This baseline support from NESTA brings freedom from the over-stretching of my skills and allows me precious time and space for new inspiration to take root and flower. It’s wonderful not to have to conform.” Conformity isn’t really a concept Sheron understands.
As part of this project, Sheron set up Feedback, her ‘think tank’, in partnership with F-IRE music group. The ‘experimental training lab for multi-disciplined artists’ is a weekly workshop open to musicians and dancers that begins with technique class and moves into practical improvisation and discussion. In the session
I went to, we worked with the (very-open minded) musicians on a basic Rhumba rhythm, developing and devising movement within the structured ‘rules’ of improvisation integral to jazz music. The most wonderful thing for me as a trained dancer, was improvising directly with one musician - the experience of communicating one-to-one through two different disciplines, learning to understand and react to the other person, is a difficult but extremely rewarding way of training.
This type of work-shopping is ideal for creating a ‘thinking dancer’, and the musicians appreciate it too, commenting freely on their new understanding of a dancer’s process.
Despite all these recent successes, Sheron remains a driven-woman, she isn’t quite happy yet. “In order to move my vision forward I need a company of dancers that is supported by a long term residency, an institution... where the work can be delivered and distributed through means of performance, education/ community work, and new commissions” she urges.
This is a big dream and I’m sure one shared by a lot of project based companies. But Sheron sees what needs to change, “The institution needs to take a risk, the risk is to take forwards what is already ten years in the making - successful and in demand - but which cannot withstand the pressures of the project environment, which is set upon sustaining only the artist at the centre of the work.”
Sheron certainly emphasises a democratic approach in her artistic process, really believing in true collaboration. If anything Sheron’s fault is her multiplicity. Sometimes she seems to want the world - but then again why shouldn’t she have it?
Through talking to Sheron I rediscovered my passion for dancing. The real dancing that I loved as a child; liberating, joyous and fun. It is all too easy to forget why you wanted to dance in the first place. For any dancer who, when trudging to class every morning, has difficulty remembering why they’re there, I would suggest getting in touch with Sheron.
Her energy and enthusiasm is astonishing, and taking class with her, or joining in the Saturday Feedback sessions, will renew your belief in the art form. JazzXchange is a truly original and innovative company whose marginal public profile does not justly reflect the diversity of their work.
However, Sheron, never to be discouraged, has high hopes for the future, with research trips planned to South America and Africa, a new work Red as Expected in the autumn, and a lottery-funded education project based on her dance film Special Request, which was shot on location in NewYork.
Lucky for her? Very lucky for the rest of the dance world too