writers on dancing


Club America
Jazz Tap Ensemble
The Joyce Theater
New York, NY
November 22-27

by Lisa Rinehart
copyright ©2005 by Lisa Rinehart

What's old is new again. It's late, late night, the lights are low and the sax's first mournful wail takes us to Club America where blowzy women spill from cocktail dresses, men with slicked back hair lounge in wrinkle-free jackets, everybody smokes and the height of urbane chic is to go out for some hot dancing and cool jazz. At least, given the elegance and subtlety of the Jazz Tap Ensemble's program at the Joyce, that's the world conjured up by the group's seasoned jazz quartet, its four gifted tap dancers, a director/choreographer with a refined sense of pace and a guest jazz singer who floats atop everyone else's energy wave. In short, it's intimate, live performance intended to pull us forward in our seats, and indeed, with these performers one doesn't want to miss a second.

The evening opens easy with a introductory line-up choreographed to the music of Sonny Rollins by late tap great Eddie Brown. Channing Cook Holmes, Joseph Wiggan, Josette Wiggan, Ayodele Casel and artistic director Lynn Dally slide on to give us a taste of their individual styles before introducing Brian Scanlan on sax, Rich Eames on piano, David Dunaway on bass, music director Jerry Kalaf on drums and singer Kate McGarry. The intro is significant in that Dally wants us to understand from the get go that the band is as important as the dancers and everyone will have their moment to shine and show off. And do they ever. This is razzmatazz show biz tap mixed with old school improvisation moved around with a little jazz dance and plumped up with the occasional moment of "Hey, look what I can do" grandstanding. It's a delightful mix that allows for surprising variety.

In "In Walked Monk," a collection of numbers by Thelonius Monk, we get tastes of Josette Wiggan's leggy grace, Casel's tough girl tautness, Joseph Wiggan's crisp precision and Holmes' devastating charm. We also get Dally in a quiet solo highlighting her love for the bluesy side of jazz. In "Interplay," a piece created by tap master Jimmy Slyde, Casel and Holmes practically burn holes in the floor in a duet that's about the sexiest thing I've seen two people do without touching.

In the second half of the program the ensemble honors the memory of Gregory Hines with "Groove," choreographed by Hines in 1998 to Kalaf's music. The legacy of Hines' relaxed style is evident and the dancers clearly enjoy summoning up his easy going spirit. But it's the selection of new solos the dancers have choreographed for themselves that cements each artist's take on the art of tap. Josette Wiggan is somehow simultaneously snappy and soft in "How My Heart Sings" composed by Earl Vindars, and her brother Joseph performs magic in his solo "Footprints," by Wayne Shorter. These two young performers take such pleasure in moving one feels cleansed just by virtue of watching them. Casel's "Delilah" by Victor Young is more street smart than sweet and her technique is dynamite. Holmes seems to prefer collaboration to solos as he shuttles from band member (he's an accomplished percussionist) to dancer with ease. His duet with Joseph Wiggan is like watching two cut gems sparkle in a Tiffany window. Dally's solo to the Sting song "Fragile" is the weakest moment of the evening. With all due respect to her talents as director and choreographer, she's not in the same league as the other dancers and her stamp is already firmly on the program without repeated variations of her opening solo. The finale, "Aqui O," is a group effort bristling with latin laced rhythms in a bright bouquet of orange, red and gold. Adelante!

In a time when being American can cause a certain amount of embarrassment, the Jazz Tap Ensemble gives us hope. How bad can a country be if it manages to produce jazz music and tap dancing, as well as fostering amazing artists who keep such things alive. I left the theater with a sense that if Eleanor Powell, queen of virtuoso (never vulgar) tap showmanship, was still around, she'd be performing with this group—a throw back to a time when things didn't have to be loud or trashy to be noticed. Hats off to Dally, Kalaf and their wonderful performers, for continuing to improve on two sublimely American creations.

Volume 3, No. 44
November 28, 2005

copyright ©2005 Lisa Rinehart



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last updated on November 28, 2005