Serving the Master

One choreographer's approach to punishment and pleasure, another's search for peace

Legendary hoofer Jimmy Slyde made a smart move when he gave an aspiring young tapper the name Roxane Butterfly. Born in the South of France, steeped in the music of the jazz greats, largely self-taught until she arrived in New York, Butterfly moves as if the floor needed tickling, not thrashing. Getting down isn't her style. Slender, usually erect, she's light on her feet, yet solid—able to lay down a pattering fusillade of steps at astonishing speed with no loss of clarity. Sometimes her torso seems a little stiff, and she likes to keep her face front and smiling, but damn! what a subtle sense of rhythm.

Butterfly, who won a Bessie for Outstanding Creative Achievement in 1999, has absorbed elements of music and dance from North African immigrant communities in France, musicians in Burkina Faso, and New York hoofers during the six years she danced on city streets. Somehow she's put it all together in her warm-cool style, speaking and moving as if tapping were the most glorious thing in the world—"a gasp for air," she calls it.

Multiples: Play Without Words
photo: Julieta Cervantes
Multiples: Play Without Words


Play Without Words
By Matthew Bourne
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Through April 3

Yin Mei
Dance Theater Workshop
March 9 through 12

Roxane Butterfly's World Beats
Duke on 42nd Street
March 9 through 13

At her 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Project concert, she talks both on tape and at a mic, honoring history and creating the block-party feeling that's de rigueur at tap events. As a woman tapper—and a white one at that—she would have been a rarity when her heroes ruled the stage. She speaks intensely and poetically of women's rights—and not just in dance—but mostly her words honor the art form's greats, while the band (musical director, composer, and cornetist Graham Haynes; drummer Victor Jones; keyboard player Ted Cruz; and bassist Jennifer Vincent) keeps the beat moving under all the talk. Mansur Scott tells of his early denial of tap and his discovery of virtuosos like Baby Lawrence and Peg Leg Bates. Butterfly invokes Steve Condos, Chuck Green, and later masters like Gregory Hines and Tamango. On a little platform, Joseph Wiggan feeds some vintage steps into his sharp tap improv, and their faces flick across the screen in the film Be Artist by Butterfly and DeSales. This Hoofalogies Suite also includes a film by Melissa Semadeni in which, to Haynes's music, tango dancer Pablo Veron performs Butterfly's choreography.

There's plenty of terrific performing—choreographed, improvised, and "imprographed." Butterfly is joined by Wiggan, Yoshiko Hida, and Max Pollak, as well as two small guests: 10-year-old Hannah Lea Dunn, and 11-year-old Warren "Swingtime" Craft—self-possessed feet-masters both. Vienna-born Pollak is a looser-bodied, more dug-in dancer than Butterfly, and slapping and clapping add to his rhythms. His shifting focus and turning body as he travels through space in a superb solo make him look three-dimensional in every way. And there are dancer-to-dancer Q & A's and dancer-musician challenges and tappers in the audience calling out approval for this international tribute to down-home art.

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