Fall Preview: The Jazz Tap Ensemble Returns to New York and More
Like every other theatrical form of dance, tap has a stage tradition, stored in the minds and muscles of dancers, passed on body to body. Yet it also has another line of heritage, the Hollywood legacy, performances preserved on film and studied by generation after generation. In its latest visit to the Joyce (September 16 through 21), the L.A.-based Jazz Tap Ensemble honors both.
In the first half of the program, the dancers re-create classic movie numbers by Fred Astaire, Bill Robinson, Eleanor Powell, John Bubbles, and others. In the second half, they bring back two of the dances created for the company by tap masters—Gregory Hines's Groove and Jimmy Slyde's Interplay—and premiere a Brazilian-themed, Joyce-commissioned piece by artistic director Lynn Dally.
The first part is audacious, inviting tough comparisons. (Though with virtuosos like company stalwart Sam Weber and new addition Jason Samuels Smith on hand, no footwork is out of reach.) It also seems to go against tap's tradition of individuality. Every hoofer learns by imitation, by stealing steps, but performing someone else's routine, someone else's role—that sounds like ballet or modern.
A similar friction is built into the very idea of a tap company, an idea that was almost unheard of when JTE started in 1979. Dancers come and go; the repertory is reinterpreted. Adopting a modern-dance model—a concert format with choreographed works—was part of how Dally and her contemporaries convinced venues like the Joyce to include tap, and grant-giving organizations to fund it. This was, Dally has said, a way of saving tap, after its customary venues had closed and Hollywood had cast it aside.
Part of what needed rescue, though, was improvisation. The production methods of movie musicals had not been hospitable to spur-of-the-moment, hard-to-reproduce invention. JTE, while exploring the possibilities of composition, has always included improv. Its most successful pieces, in fact, have been those such as Interplay, which find a balance between set structures and opportunities for solo flights.
Spontaneous musical conversations among dancers and musicians are tap at its most live, the part of the form that film can never entirely reproduce. Yet, as Hines once pointed out, improv can also be a crutch. That's especially true for today's younger dancers, who often think of tap solely as Savion Glover extemporizing at indefinite length. At its best, JTE has provided a model on how to incorporate improv without being limited by it.
This has had a mind-broadening effect on the dancers who have passed through the company, even as the company model has gone into decline: JTE is the only tap troupe of national stature still active. While some tap companies—like Jason Samuels Smith's—continue to emerge, the tap company, like the Hollywood musical, may have already seen its golden age—which is why both halves of JTE's program are important. The mostly young dancers are forced to incorporate both traditions into their bodies, and both will be there to draw upon wherever Jason Samuels Smith and his generation take the form next.
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, 212-691-9740.
'Fall for Dance'
Now in its fifth year, City Center's $10-a-seat dance sampler is still the best deal in town. You can see all six programs—28 companies spanning the genres of ballet, modern, hula, and Odissi—for less than one mid-priced ticket at ABT. This year, there are city staples (Taylor and Cunningham), beloved figures who return too infrequently (Suzanne Farrell Ballet, Fang-Yi Sheu), and those debuting here after making a name elsewhere (the companies of the Israeli-born Londoner Hofesh Shechter and the traditional Thai popularizer Pichet Klunchun). City Center, 135 West 55th Street, 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org.
The primary worth of the new Center for Performance Research might be as a desperately needed inexpensive rehearsal space, but co-directors Jonah Bokaer and John Jasperse also have curatorial ambitions. If the inaugural offerings, by the French artist Christian Rizzo, sound less exciting than the potential of the place itself, at least they make full use of the facilities: a mobile of two dresses blown by fans in one studio, a solo performance-art piece in the larger studio-theater, and a film in the office. Center for Performance Research, 361 Manhattan Avenue, Williamsburg, CPRrsvp@aol.com.
Lar Lubovitch Dance Company
October 1–October 4 and November 5–9
Years ago, the critic Tobi Tobias seemed to capture the essence of the Lubovitch aesthetic with the phrase "easy beauty." As in: easy on the eye, goes down easy, not easy to make or do, but perhaps too easy for genuine surprise or deep emotion. For the company's 40th anniversary, two New York seasons offer a chance to indulge in the pleasures and see if there's anything more. First, Dance Theater Workshop presents three reconstructions of 1970s pieces to the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Then, at City Center, come two career-spanning programs, which include Whirligogs from 1969, the premiering Jangle, and the signature Concerto Six Twenty-Two, from 1986. Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, 212-924-0077, dtw.org; City Center, 135 West 55th Street, 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org.
So far, the Baryshnikov Arts Center has generally shown excellent taste in the artists it has chosen to sponsor and present. OtherShore is a new venture: Dancers Sonja Kostich and Brandi Norton, both with impressive résumés, have gathered together a crew with equally impressive résumés and have commissioned work from Edwaard Liang (of New York City Ballet), Stacy Matthew Spence (of Trisha Brown), and Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar (of Big Dance Theater). The guiding force and vision are vague at this point, but the materials are high-grade. Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, 212-279-4200, bac.nyc.org.
American Ballet Theatre
October 21–November 2
For the centennial of his birth, the ballets of the British-born choreographer Antony Tudor—canonical but sometimes neglected—get put into heavy rotation by the company he helped to found. Tudor was a poet of repression, and though his plots and the morality behind them have become dated, his expressionistic use of ballet can still rend the heart. Jardin aux Lilas, his finest and most delicate work, returns after a few years' absence, joining the melodramatic Pillar of Fire and the late and more abstract The Leaves Are Fading. An all-Tudor evening on October 31 adds the sweet and simple pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet and the low comedy of Judgment of Paris. City Center, 135 West 55th Street, 212-581-1212, nycitycenter.org.
'Les Écailles de la Mémoire'
The performances of those Brooklyn-based ladies, Urban Bush Women, have always been about the African diaspora. But in this collaboration with the all-male Compagnie Jant-Bi from Senegal, the connections between Africa and America are especially explicit, and the contrasts are as interesting as the continuities. A typical UBW formula—suffering and struggle alchemized into kinetic force and joy (and leavened with some timeworn jokes)—produces fresh work with new ingredients, especially Senegalese sabar dancing and sexual tension. The powerful, Zimbabwe-born Nora Chipaumire, now her company's star, provides a bridge. BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-636-4100, bam.org.
Misnomer Dance Theatre
Chris Elam is one of the most original voices in contemporary dance. Put another way, his work is very strange. He's a contortionist and a fantasist, and he twists and transforms his dancers in improbable ways until they look creaturely, like himself. Sometimes the strangeness is precious; often, it's fascinating, even thrilling. Having lately made himself into a pioneer of Internet dance and a choreographer to Björk, Elam brings out three new pieces, including Zipper, which features a score by Evan Ziporyn, played live by the Real Quiet trio. Joyce Soho, 155 Mercer Street, 212-242-0800, joyce.org.
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