Turning jazz into motion

Christian Swenson mixes mime, dance, poetry, acting and music into one unconventional show

Posted: Friday, May 16, 2003

Seattle artist Christian Swenson is a singer, dancer and mime, all at once. He can be singing Van Morrison's "Moondance" one moment, and imitating a monkey the next. His one-man "Human Jazz" program has been called "a fusion of dancing, acting, storytelling and audience-suggested improvisations."

At his Madrona District home, his daughter, 15, and his son, 12, can walk into a room and still teach him about spontaneity.

"In a way, they really taught me how to be in a moment and have no expectations of what might happen next," Swenson said. "They taught me a way of being with them, without being able to prod them into responding."

Swenson will perform "Human Jazz" at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 23, at the Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium. His one-man show features him singing, dancing, reciting poetry and acting, all at the same time. Each show is different, but his Juneau appearance will be kid-friendly.

"A lot of times I'm using humor a little more and abstraction less, as well as improvising more," Swenson said. "With kids from 10 on down, I've noticed they can tell if you have an agenda. If you can be in the moment, they can't take their eye off you. They like to see the body react. They love characters. They like to see someone turn upside down, and they like it to be scary and funny at the same time."

Swenson has had an extensive career in performance art since he graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1977 and moved to Seattle. He began touring and performing throughout the United States, Europe, Japan and Nepal in the 1980s. Swenson began as a dancer, mime and "frustrated musician." He experimented with scat singing and sound effects, then had a breakthrough when he saw jazz-pop singer Bobby McFerrin in 1986.

"He blew my mind just by using his voice as an instrument and playing such a wide range with it," Swenson said. "That set me off in the direction of pursuing my musical interests and finding the kind of music that would work well without instrumentation, as well as finding music and kinds of singing that would work with physical movement."

"It's been a long exploration," he said. "How do you make music visual, and as an actor, how do you dramatize music so it's like musical theater?"

On his Web site, www.humanjazz.com, Swenson says he wants "to play my body voice as Jimi Hendrix played his guitar." His performances touch on folk idioms and ancient forms as much as contemporary dance and free jazz. He is just as likely to read from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" as he is to sing Chuck Berry's "Johnny Be Good" or imitate a crane.

"When you sit down at a piano, you have separate notes," Swenson said. "When you stand there with the body it's not as simple as that. It has so much more plasticity and range. A lot of times I use a lot of natural forms, music that conjures up aspects of the ocean and landscape. It allows me to journey both into and across that landscape."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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