Matt Mattox a rare interview: the future of jazz dance is no joke to its champion.
Historically, he reigns as a major figure in the development of a distinctive American jazz dance, but he's not singled out in the two most recent English-language reference works in the field--in Oxford's "authoritative" six-volume The International Encyclopedia of Dance, he doesn't rate his own entry (although you will find him under "jazz" and in Jack Cole's entry), and the one-volume Oxford Dictionary of Dance doesn't mention him at all. You will, however, find an entry on Mattox in Who's Who in the American Theatre, a citation that makes him smile in contentment, and you will also find him listed in the encyclopedia of dance published in 1999 by Larousse, one of the leading reference book publishers in France, where Mattox, a native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, has lived for almost three decades. Of course, if you hurry to Becket, Massachusetts, through August 17, you will find Mattox in the still-vibrant flesh. At the invitation of Chet Walker, who directs the jazz program at the Jacob's Pillow Festival, he is teaching and giving master classes in jazz dance this summer. "Perhaps," he says with a note of hope in his voice, "jazz dance will get a bit of the attention it deserves." This will be one of his rare trips to his homeland.
Most of the time you will find Mattox in the Mediterranean city of Perpignan, which is French by the map but Catalan by culture, and less than ten miles from the Spanish border. He moved to the area of France known as Roussillon in 1980. He is not here because of the rich cultural possibilities of Perpignan; on the contrary, a minute after he fetches you from the railway station, he is dodging other cars on the astonishingly narrow streets, cursing the absence of major dance festivals here, and envying Montpellier and other, more dance-savvy cities up the French coast. He is here because he has made a good life with his second wife, former dancer Martine Limeul Mattox, whose family hails from one of the hill towns in the area. They met in the mid-1970s, and she clearly adores him. They both maintain intense teaching schedules in the area, interrupting these activities several times a year to direct what they call stages, combinations of demonstrations and master classes all over Europe.
AT 82, MATTOX REMAINS A tall, dashing figure and a serious charmer; despite a major heart operation a few years ago, groans about acquiring a spare tire (invisible to all but himself), and chronic arthritis, he moves with the agility and purposefulness of a veteran dancer. For all his extended French sojourn, he claims to have failed to master the language, but he still punctuates every third English sentence with an interrogatory "Oui?"
Mattox loves to reminisce and he comes by his memories honestly. Probe his past and he will tell you about the young woman who came to a beginners' class in New York in the early 1960s. "She was wearing a long, white shirt and jeans and had hair down to here. She asked me to teach her to dance for a song she was going to audition with. So, first I asked her to sing." Pause. "Barbra Streisand. She was going into I Can Get It for You Wholesale. It made her a star. If only I had known."
Mattox will also inform you with feigned chagrin that he once chewed out French immortal Roland Petit in a Hollywood dance class back in the 1950s, when Petit was in town to choreograph the film Hans Christian Andersen. Tell him that you remember with much pleasure one of his major movie appearances, animating Michael Kidd's electrifying choreography in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and he laughs. "Funny. MGM didn't think this movie was anything special. They ran three sneak previews in Culver City and tossed it into general release without fanfare."
However, you will not raise a chuckle from Mattox when you mention the current reputation of the kind of movement--he prefers "freestyle" to "jazz dance"--that he has refined for the past half century. "Here in Europe, it is absolutely unrecognized as a technique. They think jazz dance is what they see on television. Of course, when I was working on TV, on the Bell Telephone Hour, I threw in a bit of classical ballet, tap--anything I wanted. I have the reputation here of being the only dance teacher in Europe who can instruct people in how to move."
Mattox came to evolve his own movement style (he shuns the term "syllabus") through a melange of inspirations. He had been teaching Jack Cole's method for two years when he decided it was time to put his own stamp on things. "I went home, I sat down, and I drew one line on a blank piece of paper," he recalls. "The body is a straight line and you can do everything with it. Then, there was a Life Magazine photographer who was experimenting in the early 1950s by shooting a man holding two lamps, which he moved against a black background. When the photo was developed, all you saw were these curving lines of light, and I thought, 'That's the way the body should move.'"
ABOVE ALL, MATTOX FOUND his inspiration in a trio of jazz musicians in the 1950s: Stan Getz, Jimmy Giuffre, and, especially, bandleader Stan Kenton. "Kenton was pioneering the kind of concert jazz which was difficult to capture from a dancer's point of view but was very exciting when you could do it," Mattox says. "I heard Kenton in London and realized that was it. Most dancers don't really care about the essentials, however. They come to me to teach them how to jazz dance well enough to get a job with a Broadway musical."
Mattox grieves over the death of the Broadway musical of his salad days, when the choreographer was king, though he makes a note to catch Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out when he returns to the States this summer, and he simply shakes his head about the trend toward nudity and overt sexuality in all aspects of modern dance. Angelin Preljocaj's rape scenes in his Diaghilev-era revisions come in for particular censure.
Fortunately, what Mattox does believe dance should be has found its way into a manuscript, Beginning and First Degree Exercises and Steps. Because he wrote it in English, Mattox was turned down by French publishers, but he is seriously considering appeals to American publishing houses. The book is as close to an artistic testament as we're likely to get.
"I begin with a chapter for people who have never danced before. Then, I devote chapters from first degree of proficiency to fourth degree, which, essentially, is the advanced professional level. It is all written in my own way of speaking," said Mattox. "There's also an autobiographical chapter, where I talk about everybody I have known and everywhere I have danced and taught. All of that is what I am."
Allan Ulrich is an associate editor of DANCE MAGAZINE and a longtime dance and music critic.
MORE ON MATTOX
A SAMPLING OF HIS ACHIEVEMENTS, ALONG WITH A FEW BOOKS AND VIDEOS TO HELP YOU LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MAN AND HIS DANCING. SEE MORE: WWW.DANCEMAGAZINE.COM
BOOKS AND PERIODICALS
* Matt Mattox Book of Jazz Dance by Elisabeth Frich. Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 1983. 128 pages. ISBN: 0806970480 (out of print).
* Anthology of American Jazz Dance by Gus Giordano. Evanston, IL: Orion Publishing House. 1975. 418 pages, illustrated (out of print).
* "All That's Jazz," DANCE MAGAZINE, August 1999, page 54.
* "Matt Mattox: The Master's Voice," Jazzdance, DANCE MAGAZINE, March 1993, page 70.
* "The State of the Art," Jazzdance, DANCE MAGAZINE, November 1992, page 78.
* "Regal Heads, Low-Down Bodies," Technique, DANCE MAGAZINE, April 1991, page 66.
* "Matt Mattox Comes of Age," DANCE MAGAZINE, November 1983, page 82.
* "Matt Mattox Presents an Afternoon of Dance," Reviews, DANCE MAGAZINE, June 1961, page 54.
* "Offstage With a Dancer," DANCE MAGAZINE, February 1956, page 26.
* The Jazz Dance of Matt Mattox. 1960. VHS, black and white, 28 minutes.
* Matt Mattox: Jazz Art Technique. 1996. Jazz Art Productions; 609.655.7546.
1998 Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Chair for Distinguished Teaching at the American Dance Festival
1995 Honorary Chevalier member of the Order of Letters and Arts, France
1992 Jazz Dance World Congress Award
1988 "Golden Eight" award for jazz choreography, from the International Groupe des Huit
1987 Dodeur Honoris, Federation Francaise de Danse
1974 Edinburgh Festival award for choreography
1964 Dance Masters of America award for choreographer of the year, for the Bell Telephone Hour
1958 Dance Educators of America award for distinctive contribution to dance
FILMS (dancer, often uncredited):
Yolonda and the Thief(1945), Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Good News (1947), The Merry Widow (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), The Glory Brigade (choreographer, 1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Walking My Baby Back Home (1953), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Caleb Pontipee, 1954), There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), The Girl Rush (1955), Hot Blood (choreographer, 1956), That's Dancing! (archival footage, as himself, 1985)
Broadway: Say, Darling (choreographer and dancer, 1958); Jennie (choreographer, 1963); Carnival in Flanders, The Vamp, Brigadoon, What Makes Sammy Run? (dancer) Off Broadway: Once Upon a Mattress (dancer)
TV (performer and/or choreographer): Pinocchio (1957), The Patti Page Show (1958), The Texaco Oil Show ("Swinging Into Spring," with Benny Goodman, 1959), Hallmark Hall of Fame (1961), Bell Telephone Hour (1963), The Dinah Shore Show, The Ed Sullivan Show (1954)
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2003|
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