Tap City’s Tap/Forward
The New York City Tap Festival
The Duke on 42nd Street
Friday, July 13, 2007, 7PM Show

“Savion Glover’s Invitation to a Dancer”
The Joyce Theater
Saturday, July 14 matinee

by Sali Ann Kriegsman
copyright © 2007 by Sali Ann Kriegsman

The rhythmic and technical virtuosity of contemporary tap dancers — women and men — requires that we be as attentive and intelligent as they are.  In other words, sharpen your senses and listen up!

The unfettered, audacious rhythmic freedom of American’s music, jazz,  is matched by the phenomenal rhythmic invention and improvisational flights of contemporary tap. 

There was plenty to challenge, delight, educate and transport audiences in New York in mid-July, continuing proofs that rhythm tap dancing is having a glorious, historic renaissance and those who are missing it are going to be  very sorry.

“Savion Glover’s Invitation to a Dancer”

Savion Glover is non pareil — the King of Tap.  But he has not settled into his throne and rested on his laurels. He is ever restless, ever exploring potential kinships. 

In his four weeks at the Joyce, he did the unexpected once again. His last major opus there was “Classical Savion,” a solo performance with a classical orchestra and jazz musicians.  This year — after creating the tap dancing penguin star, Mumbles, in “Happy Feet,” he dispensed with musicians altogether and danced a capella.  He was joined by Marshall Davis, Jr. and, stepping in for Maurice Chestnut at the matinee I attended, Kahlid Hill (uncredited in the program). 

The three men confined their dancing to sensitively tuned and mic’d wood platforms measuring, I would estimate, no more than five by five. The two companion dancers provided ingenious back-up for Glover and interposed impressive solo improvisations into the numbers. This ensemble — one of the tightest and most extraordinary in their synchronicity in my experience — communicated with each other and with us through a seamless stream of sound. Each was a human drum set and together they created a variety of percussive sounds and dynamics that ranged from nano whispers to ballistic explosions, from dark chocolate tones to butterscotch melodic lines. 

Here, Savion set out a military tattoo providing the insistent  rhythmic theme around which the three embroidered polyrhythmic variations; there, a Calypso accent caffeinated both the tapping and the heartbeats of the audience. The dancers changed places on the platforms as if they were  playing musical chairs and simultaneously created variant sonic patterns in space. The dancing, always serious, also had its sly and humorous moments. 

Glover punctuated the rhythms with a defiant stabbing of his heel or toe so that it seemed he was knocking at the door of heaven asking, demanding,  to be let in, summoning us with his rapping to listen even more intensely, loosing a fusillade of sounds and rhythms never before imagined, tossing it all off as if he could go on forever. 

It was Marshall Davis’s birthday and he took the occasion to celebrate and give thanks in a thrilling solo turn, one that struck me as homage to his mentor, the late, great rhythm master Steve Condos. I’d watched Condos work a small square of plywood in his Florida home, hour after hour, plumbing the fundamentals, the sources of rhythm, drilling his feet into the wood to find the most beats he could excavate. He was a maximal minimalist.   

With Davis and many of the fine young tap tyros today, the masters and influences that are tap‘s human and artistic legacy have been absorbed  into their own singular voices. They have studied well and are taking tap into new realms of expression. 

What more can one say of Savion Glover’s genius?   Beyond his superhuman technical compass, his unearthly rhythmic sensibility, the profusion and variety of sounds that his feet articulate, his sense of balance, stamina and prodigious range, he gets into a spiritual groove in the course of a 10-15 minute improvisational solo which lifts him and us into another realm.  His head rises, his beatific smile spreads joy in this heroic endeavor, his arms begin to swing towards us as if to embrace us, palms out.  But it is not only us he’s embracing. It’s something larger — a danced service, an act of reverence and humility, and it seems for him — and even for us, the watchers, the listeners, more, much more than a performance.

For “Invitation to a Dancer,” Glover invited four dancers to join in for part of the second half—a ballet dancer and three “contemporary” dancers. Too much icing on the cake for my taste.  Perhaps his idea was to show how all dancers — tap, modern, ballet, African — have rhythm in common, expressed in different parts of the body and in different forms—and to demonstrate that tap is a part of the whole dance community and should not be ghettoized. But this proved a mis-step in my view, largely because the dancers weren’t anywhere at his level technically, musically or creatively — few would be — and so seemed diminished rather than expanded by the experiment.

Still, his extended solo towards the end of the two hour program went even further than anything else.  It would seem to come to an end, and then — with the other tappers joining the conversation — it would go on, and on and on. Yet for all its length, none of it seemed arbitrary. It was structurally, musically, dancerly “right” and a perfect summit for the program.

“Tap City”:  “Love is Only a Dance” 

The night before, at The Duke, where the 7th Annual New York City Tap Festival, “Tap City,” was in progress, I caught one of four separate programs, “Tap Forward,” an evening of solos and ensemble dances featuring up and coming tappers.

Tony Waag, emcee and founder/director of Tap City , with dance historian Constance Vallis Hill beside him, presented the American Tap Dance Foundation’s annual Tap Preservation Award to Susan Goldbetter who has devotedly collected, exhibited and conserved  the memorabilia of  Charles “Cookie” Cook (recently acquired by the Schomberg Center in Harlem), the “Toe-Knee” or “Tony” award to esteemed tap teacher and director of Tap City’s youth programs, Michelle Ribble,  and the “Hoofer Award” to Deborah Mitchell, protégé of Leslie “Bubba” Gaines and founder/ director of the spiffy New Jersey Tap Ensemble.  That group features the irrepressible Parris Mann, a showman par excellence who can whip out the flash act steps of yore with spit and polish, and Karen Callaway Williams whose eyes dance as crisply as her feet, posture perfect, elegant and sexy.

Sarah Savelli from Chicago, choreographed “Summertime” according to Oscar Peterson, for a quartet of ladies in charming flowered frocks and high heels — herself and three divinely endowed phenomes — Michaela Marino-Lerman, Carson Murphy. and Ayodele Casel.   Intelligently crafted to show these women can do everything men do — and in high heels — their dancing glowed with wisdom, wit and womanhood.

Margaret Morrison’s meditative jazz  solo took us into a landscape of shifting moods and tempi. The tap simpatico drummer Bernice Brooks,  along with  bassist Joe Fonda and Theo Hill at the piano, segued into the Bay Area Tap Ensemble.  There were two other book-ended ensembles—the two year old Tap City Youth Ensemble in an opener choreographed by one of the bright new talents in tap, Jared Grimes,  and Barbara Duffy & Company which ended the show before the obligatory community “Shim Sham Shimmy.”

But the evening belonged to Jason Samuels-Smith and his brilliant suite, “Charlie’s Angels”, listed in the program as “An Excerpt from A Tribute to Charlie Parker, which we must hope one day soon to see.

Charlie’s Angels were Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Chloe Arnold and, Michelle Dorrance and as they came on, a man’s voice (Samuel-Smith’s) from the wings, set the terms of the challenge:  “You represent all women in tap. I’ll  be listening!”

Women could not have been better represented. Or Tap. The three tore into the first Yardbird number dressed to kill — also in heels — reminiscent of those legendary women’s tap choruses and blinded us with their rhythms.  As they exited, out flew Samuels-Smith in a black “Nehru” suit and black patent leather shoes and he set the place on fire with a flurry of improvisational “notes” and phrases that were articulated with breath stopping control, speed and freedom.  It was as if I was hearing Charlie Parker composing the music right there.  Just as you thought he was finished, back came the three women, now dressed in evening wear, bare-backed and sexy as hell and let loose again.  This was choreography and improvisation of the highest order, intricately and audaciously choreographed and performed with wit, ferocity, daring.   

The whole suite was astonishing, so much so that the much revered tap master, Dr. Jimmy Slyde, a man of few pithy words, jumped up in the front row and hollered, approvingly, “That shouldn’t be allowed!”  Case closed.

During the show, Tony Waag inserted a number for himself—his flair for the venerable art of song and dance never better — it was “By Myself” (Schwartz and Dietz) and it paid tribute to the Copasetics and Honi Coles with a walk around, “If you can walk you can dance” variant while his rich, breathy baritone brought us almost to tears. Pure, understated melancholy. As the song goes,  “Love is only a dance.” 


Photo by NiNa.

Volume 5, No. 30
July 30, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Sali Ann Kriegsman

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