Speaking in Taps

Last month at the Joyce, Savion Glover directed and choreographed STePz, a program featuring himself, Marshall Davis Jr., and the tap trio 3 Controversial Women, or 3CW (Robyn Watson, Ayodele Casel, and Sarah Savelli). With a series of numbers and sketches, the program paid homage to some of the greatest tap artists and musicians, from Sammy Davis Jr. to Chuck Green to many others, as well as celebrating and sharing the joy of tap with an enthusiastic and receptive audience. Watching the opening number of the show, “Miles Mode,” felt almost like witnessing a tap jam on a city street, and acted as a reminder that “choreography” (a somewhat slippery term to begin with) means something slightly different for tap than it does for other dance forms. In the program, Glover is listed as the director and choreographer, and Gregory Hines and Jimmy Slyde are credited for the program’s “Improvography,” a term Hines created to point to tap’s emphasis on improvisation and the way it is combined with choreography, and also to recognize that the inventiveness of tap artists deserves the same respect and appreciation as the work of other dance choreographers. In the number, each dancer took a turn stepping up to a wooden platform positioned in the middle of the stage and performed a lively solo. There were no pauses in the sound: the rhythm would just be “passed on” to the next person. Sometimes, to transition, one dancer would pretend to kick the other offstage, or “chase” the other playfully away with the sound of the taps. Or two dancers would work together for a moment, building upon one another’s rhythms, before one stepped down and the other took over the stage. The costumes (here and throughout most of the show) reflected a sort of urban street style: denim, leggings, harem pants and T-shirts.As the program continued, the dancers used tap to create humor, tell stories, and have conversations with one another. In one number, each dancer repeated a contagious movement, pointing at the next person to pass it along. When the movement reached Glover, he simply held a hand up, playfully refusing to repeat what everyone else had done. In “Bugle Call Rag,” 3CW, dressed in black and white, performed a tribute to an older era in tap history. In two duets, Glover and Davis further explored the idea of improvography and collaboration. On a pair of large wooden steps (reminiscent of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s famous stair dance), the two went back and forth in a sort of tap battle, trying to “one-up” or challenge each other by continually taking their rhythmic patterns and use of the stairs to new levels. No background music was necessary – only the sound of tap shoes, snapping fingers, and laughter. Their ability to continually create unpredictable and surprising rhythms and to work off each other was impressive, and the spirit of fun they brought to the “battle” was infectious. The duets reminded us that these performers are musicians as well as dancers. And in another humorous number, the dancers seemed to be poking fun at ballet a little bit, creating imitations or caricatures of familiar balletic movements. They encircled their arms over their heads and walked on the toes of their tap shoes. At certain points, one would raise a leg into the air as if preparing for a pirouette or other turn, but instead would twirl a finger around in a circle to illustrate the spinning movement, to laughs from the audience. The music was a more traditional classical piece, and had an intensity about it that made the dancers’ parody even funnier.

Glover’s relationship with tap reveals itself in a different way in his solos. “Flamenco Sketches,” a possible tribute both to another percussive dance form and to Miles Davis’s work of the same name, began with only the faint sound of Glover tapping his right toe on a silent, darkening stage. At first, it was difficult to identify where the sound was even coming from. The sound, and the intensity of the tapping, gradually built until it seemed to spread through his entire body. Though he stayed in one spot onstage for much of the time, and made seemingly small movements, it was clear that he used every muscle to produce the complicated and increasingly fast rhythms. Flamenco is often associated with the spirit of duende, a difficult-to-define word that, when linked to dance, indicates a strong, almost painful or otherworldly passion for one’s art, a deep connection that brings the artist to a completely different level and height of emotion, and that inspires a very strong response in those observing. Watching Glover dance, I was reminded of this intensity of passion, and I thought of it again in his final solo, “Stepz,” which he danced to the song, “Mr. Bojangles.” This work in particular seemed to be a love song to tap, reaching new levels of rhythm, speed, experimentation, and an expression of both the hard work and pure joy that the form and its history can inspire.Aside from his sheer virtuosity, we continue to love to watch Savion Glover because he loves what he does, and he makes that passion visible to us. It is a true risk and a leap of faith to fully show one’s love for something, leaving the artist completely open and vulnerable on stage. Glover hides behind nothing and gives everything: in moments it feels as though we are watching him through a window into a private room. He seems almost transported, so connected is he to the layers of rhythm and music he creates. We are transfixed, spellbound. After all, it’s not every day that an artist like this one comes along.

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