History on the Move

Tap honors its legends and forges on; the Graham company explores its founder's history

"The sound of your taps is like the sound of your voice: a signature." This sentence in Brenda Bufalino's book Tapping the Source: Tap Dance Stories, Theory and Practice makes me wish I'd taken Tapology 101 somewhere along the line. In this fifth year of "Tap City" (a week of classes, workshops, films, and performances), my ears are winging it.

The festival's ebullient producer and artistic director, tapper Tony Waag, welcomes us to an opening gala that acknowledges past masters and brings on new stars and up-and-comers, showbiz-hot and pomo cool. Mable Lee, who graced nightclubs and movies in the '30s and '40s, struts on shapely legs while singing—part devilish siren, part cutie-pie. Mari Fujibayashi and Olivia Rosenkrantz (the duo Tapage) wear stylish, unrevealing costumes and dance light, elegantly patterned choreography to Thomas Oboe Lee's music for string quartet, backed by home movies of their childhood days. Thomas Marek, accompanied by pianist-composer Patrick Bebelaar (and a drum-and-voice track), is a wolf of a dancer. Tall, rangy, feet apart, he gives the floor a resonant thrashing. Don't think just complex shuffles and brushes; think kicking a stone down the block.

Three divas alternately soothe and challenge our ears. Bufalino, singing throatily ("A woman is jazz . . . "), makes her taps mutter, insinuate, burst out joyously. Lynn Dally's feet whisper, skillfully sly, across the stage in her tribute to the late Gregory Hines. Sarah Petronio, a mile deep into the music, improvises with pianist Frank Kimbrough, bass player Joe Fonda, and drummer Bernice Brooks—urging them on, hushing them.

Mable Lee and Tony Waag: Steppin' out
photo: Julieta Cervantes
Mable Lee and Tony Waag: Steppin' out

Details

Tap City
Joyce Theater
June 28 through July 3

Martha Graham Dance Company
Jacobís Pillow
Becket, Massachusetts
June 29 through July 2

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It's good when tap choreography thins out to let us recover for the next barrage, especially when the North Carolina Youth Ensemble or Michelle Dorrance and Friends hoof it in unison. But no one would want Jason Samuels Smith to quiet down. His tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. and Peg Leg Bates is fast but weighted, savagely clear, and the tonal variety he achieves is stunning. One minute he's a stumblebum vaudevillian; the next he's using one heel as a wooden leg and weaving intricate sound patterns around it with his other foot.

Barbara Duffy and Company dance Hines's choreography with élan. Walter "Sundance" Freeman and Karen Callaway Williams offer a bright, muscular tribute to the Nicholas brothers, and Bufalino assembles many of the performers (including Kendrick Jones II and Joseph Wiggan) to honor Honi Coles and the Copasetics, ending with the legendary group's seated Chair Dance and a walloping Shim Sham Shimmy . Bufalino titles one chapter of her book "Beyond Shuffle Ball Change." I'll say.

For its week at Jacob's Pillow, the Martha Graham Dance Company honored Graham's beginnings as a student of Pillow founder Ted Shawn and his wife, Ruth St. Denis, and as a performer in their Denishawn. Planned by the Pillow and the company's former artistic directors Christine Dakin and Terese Capucilli (recently and unexpectedly ousted in the name of financial restructuring), the program was elegantly organized, with few pauses, to show how Graham both used and disavowed her heritage in forging her own style. St. Denis's glamorous spiritual transformations surely fueled Graham's belief in dance as an ecstatic practice and her brilliant use of fabric. Denishawn's "oriental" postures found their way into her post-1944 myth-based dramas, and Shawn's emphasis on strong clarity of design can be linked with Graham's modernism of the 1930s.

The early pieces can look a little kitschy, despite everyone's best intentions. The music for St. Denis's 1906 The Incense is played so slowly that the dancer (I saw the beautiful Katherine Crockett) has to draw out the flowing walks and the snaking arms that mimic rising smoke. An act of devotion and quiet ecstasy acquires a self-indulgent cast, as if the woman were commenting on her own holiness. David Zurak performing Shawn's 1919 Gnossienne—a two-dimensional vase painting on the move—seems focused only on the ordeal of holding long balances. In Graham's own Denishawny Three Gopi Maidens from her first New York concert in 1926 (plus the man added when she expanded the trio into Flute of Krishna), shy pleasure too easily becomes a parody of coyness.

Four years later, in the masterly solo Lamentation, Graham used costume fabric not just for the decorative play the Gopis indulge in, but as a spare and stunning expressive symbol—a tube that encases the dancer like grief itself. Steps in the Street (1936) shows how powerfully and stringently Graham deployed her all-female group to embody being driven back and forging ahead (Miki Orihara is exemplary as the soloist).

The highlight of the program was the great 1947 duet Errand Into the Maze, in which a woman battles her own fears, represented by a horned male figure, and triumphs. Christophe Jeannot makes the creature into a potent, subtly erotic adversary, and Alessandra Prosperi gives a sensitive, strong performance. Audiences adore Acts of Light. Graham was 87 when she made this ritualistic paean to youthful bodies and passion's raptures (in an extravagant duet wonderfully danced here by Fang-Yi Sheu and Maurizio Nardi). The dancers show off the ecstatically acrobatic choreography as if they too loved it to death.

 
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