writers on dancing


Listening to the Music,
Listening to the Dance

Classical Savion
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
January 16, 2005

by Sali Ann Kriegsman
copyright © 2005 by Sali Ann Kriegsman

For everyone who's watched Savion Glover since he burst into the world of tap, each new opportunity to see him has proven to be more astonishing than the last.

When he was coming up, soaking up all he could from his elders—Gregory Hines, Honi Coles, Chuck Green, Lon Chaney, Bunny Briggs, Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, Dianne Walker, Cholly Atkins, Fayard and Harold Nicholas, Steve Condos and others—you could see their signature rhythms and moves passing through Glover's feet in a parade. Then, in the flash of an instant, he was no longer a precocious student but had begun to forge his own style and rhythms, built on his tap heritage but distinctively Glover's. His hard hittin' phenomenal technical and improvisational virtuosity was unmatched. Still is. But his artistry has deepened as he's been exploring other musics, other rhythms, other ideas and ways of relating to musicians, to his audiences and to the world around him.

Glover's refusal to be pigeon-holed was evident in the self-produced ABC TV special in which he and Stevie Wonder "conversed" on a Manhattan rooftop. If there were no other record of Glover's art, their duet would stand as a brilliant masterwork. It proved, among other things, that there was no limit to his artistic enterprise, innovation, curiosity. The musical universe was his to investigate and his take on it would inform and change the way music and tap were understood.

Of course, setting feet into the elite precincts of classical music could be nothing more than a novelty turn. It comes with a warning: Don't do it unless you have something to say. In his Joyce program, Glover had plenty to say.

Like George Balanchine, Glover makes you see and hear things in the music that you might not otherwise be aware of—the rhythmic undercurrents and eddies that too often are muffled in even the most proficient performances, for example. And he makes you listen, really listen, to the dancing.

Glover's fearless forays have not always been equally successful—for example, in tribute to Astaire-Rogers in an earlier production, he came acropper just as everyone who has tried to "do" Astaire (or the Nicholas Brothers) has. Great dancers are inimitable and Glover is both great and inimitable.

I confess I was prepared to be bowled over by "Classical Glover" before I got there. Everyone I knew who'd seen the show raved about it, said they screamed and cried and couldn't get over it. Sometimes those kinds of advance kudos bring disappointment. But not in this case.

What do I remember best? Glover's sweetness and his intimacy with each and every one of the superb musicians—classically trained and jazz masters. His intense involvement with every measure of music. The way, like jazz musicians do with melodies, he seamlessly quoted the rhythmic signatures of Bill Robinson (walking backwards), Lon Chaney (the hearty boxer feints and bobs), Steve Condos (the rat-a-tat obsessive pile-driver minimalist rhythmic changes), Jimmy Slyde (the deep musicality, respect for musicians, generosity, gentlemanliness and sly wit). Also and especially, Gregory Hines's passionate, defiant, crouched stomping on the wood, as if to test its mettle, to see how angry he could be with it before lightening up and thanking it for being there—and the smile giving away his delight. (Hines's framed portrait sat atop the piano, where Glover placed a second pair of shoes—the ones without taps.)

Also: the superhuman feat of a close to two-hour solo performance without intermission (a matinee which was to be followed by an evening show). The Rorschach-like pattern of perspiration spreading on his shirt—the only sign of effort. His wide as the sky dynamic range—from subtle whisperings in Bach's "Air from Suite No. 3" (a tender tribute to Hines), to the barrage of Latin-tinged glissandos in the Piazzola, to the scraping of the side of his shoe against the corner of the raised floor in Bartok's "Rumanian Folk Dance." How he first marked out the edges of the four corners of that floor, the way an animal marks his territory, then covered every mini-inch of it with taps, and proceeded to defy risk by dancing to those very edges, punctuating a piece with a half split or an exclamation mark. The conversation his feet engaged in, not just with the musicians, the music and the audience, but with each other. I can't recall every seeing/hearing another dancer whose feet talked to each other like his did. At times, it seemed they were in a room by themselves having a deep philosophical conversation that he let us eavesdrop on.

His body language. I noticed his hands—his right hand often held as if ready to snap his fingers, jumping along with the beat, or his arms flapping out like Chuck Green's as if he was preparing to fly, or an occasional balletic port de bras, half in jest. His posture was often vertical but he also got down. Way down.

And of course, how he worked with the music—classical and jazz—and with the musicians. The mostly young, classical players, including harpsichordist, and the seasoned jazz masters. In a long and generous tribute, he introduced them one by one and gave them a solo turn as the indomitable bassist, Andy McCloud, provided the floor on which they showed their stuff. As McCloud played the same phrase over and over for perhaps 20 minutes or more, Glover would occasionally ask, "And did I remember to welcome Andy McCloud?" Just to remind us of McCloud's rock steady musicianship.

How did the classical and tap relationship work out? It was revelatory. As the show's musical director Robert Sadin remarked, Glover's rhythmic acuity and vitality inspired the musicians to play with greater rhythmic rigor and life. And the music (Vivaldi, Bach, Bartok, Piazzola, Mendelssohn) inspired Glover to explore counterpoint, melody, phrasing.

Sadin observed that in their time, these composers were open to the world, they were not elitist, and that in this program Glover was bringing things together, not keeping them separate. (Glover is not the first or only tap dancer to work with classical music—Paul Draper may have been the first, and Leon Collins had lots to talk about with Bach.)

For me, the most hair-raising part of the three-part program was the concluding "The Stars & Stripes Forever (For now)" in which Glover and the four jazz musicians of The Otherz set themselves—and us—aflame. Tommy James, their musical director and superb pianist brought up "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." It swung. Just as I thought they couldn't go on, couldn't have more to say, they revved up and said even more.

Photo by Len Irish, Dance Magazine


Volume 3, No. 4
January 24, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Sali Ann Kriegsman


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last updated on January17, 2005