Dance honors director’s father

In modern dance, as kinetic and fluid as the choreography can be, sometimes the dancers slow and pause, holding a moment so they appear as sculptures. Muscles tensing, costumes and hair rippling, for brief seconds they look like — well, like trees.

That’s a central image of one dance in Jocelyn Shiro-Westphal’s Jazzline, the 12th production of her dance troupe’s annual winter presentation. In “C’est la Mort,” named after the song by the Civil Wars, Shiro-Westphal and Kara Bakken Clemens move across the stage both joining and parting. Sometimes they stop, limbs and torsos intertwined like the trunks and branches of a bonsai tree.

That image symbolizes the theme of Shiro-Westphal’s performance, subtitled “Standing Strong.” It’s an homage to her late father, Joe Shiro, a World War II combat veteran who served in the legendary U.S. Army 100th/442nd Battalion, a unit of second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans honored as a unit with the Congressional Gold Medal. Shiro died in February 2012 at the age of 88.

“It’s a tribute to my father and his love of trees, and the idea of trees having roots and blossoms, being very grounded and strong and nurturing fruit,” Shiro-Westphal said of this year’s Jazzline. “That’s what my dad was, a strong individual and nurturing.”

Shiro-Westphal said this year’s Jazzline, showing Friday and Saturday at the Mariner Theatre, is dedicated to her father — and the grandfather of two of her dancers, daughter Lily Westphal, a Homer High School senior who has danced in every Jazzline, and son Ben Westphal, 15. “Loss” is a common theme in many of the dances, Shiro-Westphal said.

“I’ve gone through some personal challenges this year in losing people,” she said. “It just turned out a lot of dances and the songs I was drawn to had to do with losing someone or the loss of someone very dear.”

With lines like “You can sink to the bottom of the sea / Just don’t go without me,” “C’est la Mort” could be interpreted as being about two people who can’t let go. Shiro-Westphal sees it as a song and dance about two people who care deeply for each other and don’t want someone to go on without them.

She examines a similar idea in another dance, “Beam Me Up,” dedicated to her father, about wanting to see someone again after a long time. Shiro-Westphal said she sees it as being about someone who has died that you want to see just one more time.

Another piece, “Teach Me How to Be Loved,” danced with the adult members of her troupe and her daughter Lily, is about two people who don’t know how to accept being loved, and learn how to accept love in their lives.

“They’re some angsty songs. This is going to be a downer of a show,” Shiro-Westphal said. “Luckily, I have the kids.”

Those would be the teenage, middle school and elementary school age dancers in her 36-person company. She used to call her youngest dancers “littles,” but they said that after dancing a few years, they wanted to be known as “mediums.” Although most of Jazzline are girls and women, the company includes some strong male dancers, especially in a piece, “Back to the Street,” with some tricky break-dance moves and a spooky costume surprise Shiro-Westphal wants to keep secret.

The kids kick up Jazzline with numbers like the classic “Footloose” and a step dancing number, with a lot of rhythm body percussion.

Back this year are three Jazzline dancers who took a year off to have children, Bakken Clemens, Lisa Nordstrom and Miranda Weiss, all looking fit post-pregnancy.

“They’re so beautiful and such strong dancers,” Shiro-Westphal said, “I’m thrilled to have them back.”

One piece, “Goddess Pele,” features music by Milo Matthews. Matthews had planned to perform live but is unable to for the performance while he’s working in Kodiak. As in previous Jazzlines, the music is a mix of dub step, hip hop, rhythm and blues and show tunes.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at

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