Savion Glover’s annual multiple-week encampment at the Joyce can often seem like a battle between two sides of a guy who’s been told he’s a genius since he was a kid. You might call them What He Does and What Could He Be Thinking.
What He Does, of course, is tap dance like nobody else, carrying on a noble tradition of percussive artistry in a form so stripped of ingratiation that only his fame accounts for why he hasn’t been relegated to more esoteric venues. What Could He Be Thinking is the question raised by the amateur ballerina, the booty-shaking rap-video girls, the loony science-fiction allegory about tap’s end of days, the testy outbursts to enemies in the audience, and coded messages to those he considers apostates.
The two sides have often divided somewhat neatly at the intermission, the first half leaving Glover alone or with a few trusted members of his congregation, the second half given over to group experiments that show either contempt for entertainment or an embarrassingly impoverished idea of it. Fortunately, SoLe Sanctuary (at the Joyce through July 9) has no intermission and only a few silly distractions. You miss half of those if you don’t read the program, with Glover’s bio (“Censored. Praise Almighty God.”) and his labeling of himself and Marshall Davis Jr. as “The Last HooFeRz Standing.” You can get the gist of the concert’s 12 section titles (“Entering the Monastery of His Out’Ness,” “The High Priest of Gone”) from the name of the production and the stage setup. Arranged in the brick wall at the back is a shrine of votive candles, and hanging from the fly are photos of departed tap masters, Glover’s surrogate fathers, the men who raised him in the art.
There are four wooden platforms: one for Glover, one for Davis, one for a pair of tap shoes, and one for an Asian guy who meditates throughout the 80 minutes. Apart from that human prop and some canned music that sounds like a New Age relaxation CD (it’s almost a dare: the King of Tap can tap even to this), the show is Glover doing what he does.
He never leaves the stage. Davis comes and goes, a loyal sidekick. More diffident than Glover, he’s a shadow-like double in unison sections, thickening the sound. In trades, he can keep up the conversation, make clear there is a language being spoken; in solos, he creates moments of oddly quiet soulfulness out of slammed feet. His struggle can be moving, whereas Glover is effortless, even as the sweat stains spread and he misses bits of choreography. The comparison brings out Glover’s unparalleled tonal range. The resonance of his simplest toe-drops, a sound like bongos or timbales, is as expressive as the thrill of his speediest passages, rich with shifting patterns and differentiations of pitch. Glover has a tendency to worry a rhythm like a tooth, attacking it from different angles. He can sound insistent, obsessive, drawn to threes, like he’s knocking on heaven’s door.
Despite the titled sections, there aren’t numbers so much as a sequence of grooves, grooves that in their strength offer lessons for younger, pyrotechnical tappers. (Glover may dance to Coltrane and borrow the term “out” from ’60s jazz, but he’s always grounded.) Glover and Davis sit in one for a while, see what it has to offer, then move on to the next. One man holds the groove while the other man embellishes. They turn and twist, but visual elements are undersold. They smile at each other or to themselves. At a delightfully retro variety show at the Apollo in May, Glover reasserted his ability to whip a crowd into a frenzy, but at the Joyce he offers few opportunities for applause. On opening night, when Davis jackhammered a heel, the audience clapped for a trick, when the more appropriate response would’ve been something like “Amen.”
Early on in the Joyce show, Glover plays audio from a speech that Gregory Hines gave at a televised tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. (No relation to Marshall Davis Jr.) Photos of both of those men are prominent in the set’s shrine; the pair of shoes probably belonged to Hines, who died far too soon. In the speech, Hines tells of things hard to put into words, love that can only be danced. This is what Glover does, as he’s always said: dance his love for those men and their tradition.
For the initiated, SoLe Sanctuary, like almost all of Glover’s performances, is thronged with ghosts, allusions, quoted steps of the men in the photos, whose names Glover intones at the end. This time, Glover also alludes to his own past, sampling grooves from earlier shows. When the sunlight-through-clouds music comes back in, he could be speaking to those fathers or to The Father. Either way, it’s praise, homage, a lonely call for guidance. For all the joy that Glover exudes, it’s also elegy, beautiful and more than a little sad.