Believe it or not, Savion Glover, sporting a tux, is tap-dancing to baroque music at the Joyce Theater.
A natty tuxedo was the 20th-century uniform for tap dancers and classical musicians. But a decade ago, Glover, the original “tap dance kid,” melded hip-hop garb and attitude with his tap chops. He revolutionized the look and sound of tap dancing, throwing off the formal suit and the grin, “hitting” the floor hard in oversize T-shirts and sweats. Now 31, he sets the pace for a generation of tap innovators and, since the death of Gregory Hines, holds pride of place in the tap community. On January 22 he becomes one of the youngest artists ever to receive the dance world’s prestigious (and lucrative) Capezio Award.
He’ll be wearing one of two tuxedos, either the Armani or the DKNY, in which he’s been “laying down metal” and sweating up a storm at the Joyce since January 4, improvising to live classical music under the baton of Robert Sadin and to jazz played by the Otherz, the jazz combo with which he usually appears. (See Deborah Jowitt’s review on page 84.)
For Classical Savion he styles the elegant penguin suit differently, to be sure, almost mocks it, leaving the jacket and a bright dress shirt unbuttoned to reveal an undershirt and a string of wooden beads. A bow tie dangles around his neck. His auburn-tinged dreadlocks fly free or are caught back in elastic. His 12-and-a-half-EE tap boots sometimes echo, note for note, the Bach and the Mendelssohn he’s hearing; sometimes he anticipates the rhythmic complexities of the score.
Meanwhile, conductor Sadin and his 10-member chamber group work in shirtsleeves, and Glover invites them to improvise. This series of concerts, which continues through January 23, may mark the first time anyone’s ever tap-danced to a harpsichord.
Sadin, Glover’s collaborator on Classical Savion, is a conductor and arranger who’s taught at Princeton and elsewhere, and worked with Herbie Hancock on the Grammy-winning 1998 CD Gershwin’s World. Merging genres has become one of his specialties. He recently produced and conducted Wayne Shorter’s Alegria, which won a Grammy last year for best instrumental-jazz album. Sadin conducted and recorded Wynton Marsalis’s score for Peter Martins’s ballet Jazz in 1993, and first worked with Glover at a JVC Carnegie Hall tribute to Shorter in June 2003.
Before meeting Sadin, Glover’s engagement with classical music had been limited, he says, to “messing around with Tommy James,” pianist and musical director of the Otherz. Last fall, Glover called Sadin and told him he had a classical program scheduled for January.
“By the time we were discussing it seriously the theater was already booked,” Sadin says. “I love that. It gave the project a sense of urgency, propelled it along in the right way.” At the Joyce, Sadin simultaneously conducts and watches Glover over his shoulder with a look of delighted surprise.
“When Savion is dancing,” says Sadin, “I often turn to face him—the sense of interaction is so strong with him that I want to feel that as intensely as possible, to unite the rhythmic sense of the musicians’ interpretation with Savion’s as completely as possible.
“The wonderful young string players are almost all recent graduates of the New England Conservatory in Boston. The director of the orchestral program there, Don Palma, a wonderful bass player himself and a longtime colleague, offered invaluable input. Several of the musicians were part of the orchestra at the Wayne Shorter concert. So there’s a tradition we’re starting to develop here.” Sadin was still recruiting musicians over Christmas vacation, and Glover and the chamber ensemble met for the first time a couple of days before opening night. Half the players are Asian Americans; among the others are musicians from Israel, Germany, and Bulgaria.
Sadin gave Glover CDs to listen to, including a recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which opens the Joyce show. “The Vivaldi took over,” says the dancer. “It just wiped me out.”
“He has a tremendous power of concentration while he’s listening,” says Sadin. “I found that when we returned to some of this music with the orchestra, he had already internalized a deep sense of the form and direction of the compositions. Most of the music has a strong motor pulse, but there are selections with no pulse—for instance the Bartók ‘Rumanian Folk Dance.’ Savion provides a rhythmic overlay that complements what the orchestra is doing.” The conductor says the dancer’s “performances have a consistency in his basic understanding of the music. But the individual steps are totally different night to night. He returns to certain motifs, much in the way that Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk use some motifs frequently. But because of the context and the placement, they emerge totally fresh each night.
“The music we perform is only a portion of what we considered and rehearsed. We’re looking forward to bringing Ravel, Stravinsky, Debussy, and some contemporary composers as well. Savion and I see this as the maiden voyage in a long and varied exploration of the potential for tap and classical music.”
Sadin is learning as much from Glover as the young dancer is getting from the mature conductor. Says Sadin, “Igor Stravinsky commented, after hearing a rehearsal of a Mozart symphony, that the conductor could frequently be heard exhorting the orchestra to sing. However, he did not also encourage them to dance. Savion’s performances bring a rhythmic vitality and exactness that we have all gained from. Classical music is often performed with tempo fluctuation—some interpretive, but some involuntary, just accepted. Savion holds up a mirror of rhythmic acuteness, which has been magnificent.”
For his part, Glover, who’s onstage for close to two hours at every show, can’t seem to get enough. “I’m gonna improvise as long as I can,” he said after the third performance, popping plums and knocking back bottles of water to replace the fluid he’d lost. Meanwhile wardrobe supervisor Yvette E. Stapleton, who’s been looking after Glover’s costumes since his stint on Broadway in Jelly’s Last Jam in 1991, proudly wrangled the sweat-drenched tuxedos (they must be cleaned after every performance), and laundered and pressed the three shirts (there are doubles of each).
Glover’s a family man now, a home owner with a wife and a three-month-old son. His stage persona has morphed from alienated punk to enthusiastic host and engaged musician, channeling baroque music brilliantly, if a little more quietly than he does the cool jazz of the Otherz. The introverted trance in which he used to perform has given way to a focused attitude, a smile that signals delight in the material. It’s a little soon to declare his bravura performance the dance event of the year—but hell, let’s do it.
Classical Savion continues at the Joyce through January 23; call 212-242-0800 for tickets and information.
Additional reporting by Brian Seibert and Kenya Hunt