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A Tribute to the Legends of Tap

16 January 2010 Yardley Hall
A Review by Mike Strong

A full house at Yardley Hall - as the program closes with the Shim Sham Shimmy - Only a few seats in the boxes to either side showed any degree of open space.

In a nutshell, mixed, un-even and not yet worked through, though clearly enjoyed by the audience, and myself. I have to say that because most of what I have to say about it is in the nature of items which need to be worked on and you may get the idea I didn't like the show. So, just think of these as "notes" after performance. I did like the show and I can't imagine any reason anyone else shouldn't, but in fairness to the performers, they need to hear questions about the performance. Before that, however, there is the matter of what produces a sold-out show in this area.

The first thing that gets your attention is a solid matte of people, from the seats up against the stage apron to the nose bleed seats with just a few box seats on the side still un-occupied, all for a tap dance performance, at Johnson County Community College.

Or maybe not just a tap performance but also a testiment to the power of season ticket sales strategies. Which is good for JCCC because not all the companies have the same solid performances.

At the same time, entire dance schools with students showed up in groups. I found myself next to one of those tap, jazz, ballet schools way back next to the control booth with the video projector. The school owners were there as were a dozen or so girls of pre-teen to mid-teen ages, as usual checking their text messages, chatting excitably, seeing who was there and talking dance.

The audience was clearly a dancer audience. No, they don't wear badges but it doesn't take that much after a while to recognize the group. They are really there for the dance. And they know what they are looking at. In November of 2006 (11th and 12th) the Savion Glover performance at the Folly was also a sell-out, again from the apron to the nose bleeds. I know, I was one of the nose bleeders and I didn't see an open spot anywhere, including in many of the aisles where there were people standing for a while. And at that performance the audience was again knowledgeable and filled with tap dance students, both old and young, lots of young, lots of enthusiasm. And in November of 2008 Savion was at JCCC in this same Yardley Hall, again sold out.

So, back to why Johnson County Community College's Yardley Hall was full to the gunnells with "Sold Out" signs on the ticket booths and a small number of frantic customers trying to straighten out errors in tickets which the clerks in the ticket booths couldn't fix. This wasn't even a famous-name performer but rather a group of dancers using a dedication to a famous-name performer.

Part of this successful arrangement is certainly due to subscriptions. So this really isn't all about tap per se. Some of the people even said as much but they were here for the dance anyway. The rest of the audience were definitely there because of their interest in tap. This tap, this rhythmic, percussive dance is still very popular. For some years it seemed nearly invisible or it seemed as if the 30s were the heyday and it was downhill by the 60s.

Well, it doesn't look like it from this audience. They were almost tenaciously enthusiastic, even when they should have had a few production questions (more later). I admit to being encouraged at this much strength for tap, and puzzled. Maybe part of it is that tap is finding integration into new styles. While the audience cheered and clapped they let loose when the dancers moved out of the tribute area and into their own work, with a clear foundation in modern and in hip hop.

The dancers themselves seemed very young, though experienced, yet without seeming that seasoned, emulating older styles but not feeling free and comfortable until they started working on their own material. This is not a topped out sharpened Broadway production. Closer to good college dancers with a lot of rehearsal and near daily performances. Not that this dance audience minded. They cheered.

Actually the show was certainly enjoyable and I didn't see anyone grousing about what they would have preferred to see. Still, the more I thnk about it the more it seems like a show very much in development rather than a finished product. The overly frantic video montages and a lack of costume changes with a very sparse set are puzzling for me. Along with that are various pieces which get started and then seem to drop away when a different piece is performed.

In a way the tribute part of the show seems like a hook for a grant and a show as a way to eventually show off their own material, which I liked the best. Probably because the dancers opened up, free of the constraints of mimicking individual styles from the past. Maybe they will perfect other styles in the future in order to imitate past dancers but I would guess not. They are really focusing on their new material. Which, in fairness, is what the old masters they were emulating were best at, their own style.

The Fred Astaire imitation was a good reminder of just how special Astaire was. Brent McBeth in the Astaire role made a good effort at Astair's light and delicate style but he really had a little too much motion weight, a little too much ground. He started in the middle and tried to make it lighter. Fred starts from the top with precision. It's not easy to be Fred if you're not Fred. But then Fred wasn't anyone else either. When he subbed for Gene Kelly (usually when Kelly was injured) he did Fred, not Gene.

This was obvious when he did a brief extract from the hat-tree dance in Royal Wedding. The gliding little ronde de jambe a terre becomes more drag than glide. And this from a good dancer.

The same with the other style demonstrations. The show's emcee, Joseph Webb, who managed to emulate a number of styles is freer dancing his own. Doing the Jimmy Slyde style he managed to slide across the stage and he wasn't bad on his own but it did seem more like sliding across an icy sidewalk. Ten or 20 minutes later we saw video from many of the dancers including Jimmy Slyde. The comparison was now totally obvious.

The real Slyde seemed weightless and massless, as if he were rolling on a triple set of ball bearings. Smooth, fast and awesomely beautiful. Just a few seconds of the real Slyde, but wow, I'm still thinking about that few seconds hours later. The imitation was sincere but I barely remember it except that it seemed too heavy to be Jimmy Slyde, even before the video footage reminded me of the real deal.

There was a nice attempt to do dance live with Gregory Hines projected on a screen behind. It paired up a sequence from "White Nights" and is the scene where Gregory Hines (as an American tap dancer, defector, Raymond Greenwood) is in a large dance studio, alone, waiting for Mikhail Baryshnikov (as arrogant Russian ballet dancer Nikolai Rodchenko, a former defector), to show up. The pas de duex between live performance and filmed performance nearly works and maybe it will in the future but again it didn't quite work for me. It just barely missed. I'd like to see it again. The staging did look nice, merging the dance area into the film's dancer area.

Then there is the graphics design mess with the video. I should confess my own bias in not liking editing in which the editor thinks he or she is the talent and their editing is the performance rather than the dancers whose images they were flashing for several secondsor less at a time. For some purposes this works well but generally I find it misdirected. The video kept imposing rectangles and lines over the top of the quick-changing montage, obliterating large segments of the images in rapid fire order. Numerous clips from the first half of the 1900's were flung at us without any identification of the dancers.

The audience, certainly those around me, were annoyed that there was no chance to get a fix on the images and no way of knowing who all the dancers were. Because of the changing images your eye was drawn to the screen but it was still hard to watch. A much better approach would have been a more standard montage with un-interrupted short clips and text titles underneath affirming who the dancers were and when and what piece the clips were from. It would have been information-rich.

This kind of stylistic montage trivializes dance and the dancers. While the editors get excited at their artistry what they have really done is to part-out the dance and then pasted it together as a derivative work. Probably the most frustrating version of this technique was the Baz Lurman film "Moulin Rouge" in which he did as many at three cuts a second. You never really see the dances or other performances. The hired talent has the talent. They should be allowed to perform and the editor's art should almost always be in presenting the artist as the art.

Ironically, what really worked was a performance video featuring multiple images of a tapper showing only the lower half of the legs - made by the same person, Tony Waag, who did the snappy, if frustrating, montages. The first part featured frames from the same dancer (Barbara Duffy) in slightly different performances of the same piece. Once the number of pictures in the frame reached five, all subsequent frames with multiple images, sometimes dozens, were always from the same shot. In the days long before digital and before multiple printing this would have been shot through a prism to give numerous overlapping images. This video was a full performance and it was one of the best of the evening.

One query was the addition of a swing number in the show. The only swing number with all the other numbers being tap in some manner. The number was nice enough but contributed to the perception that the show is still in development. Had there been more of an exchange between swing as a form and tap this might have fleshed out to show the rhythmical cousinship. But purely as an isolated piece it really should have been dropped for consistency.

Members of the audience onstage for the Shim Sham

The other odd part for me was the traditional Shim Sham Shimmy ending with members of the audience joining the performers on stage. There are variants of the Shim Sham and they were going with the Leonard Reed version and in the program list Leonard as the choreographer. There is a difference in emphasis within the count.

They didn't mention that Leonard came from Kansas City although they have a study guide on the web which notes this. When I brought it up after they seemed not to have been aware of Leonard's origin in Kansas City. They also seemed a little unprepared to answer whether they preferred the Leonard Reed version of the Honi Coles version, a question from tap teacher/performer Billie Mahoney. It seemed to be a new question for them to ponder.

They had mentioned the "Revenge of the Shim Sham," a last tape from Leonard before passing in 2005 at age 96 and which is carried on by Rusty Frank. But even then there didn't seem to be a sense of context. Nor did it sound as though there was a sense of historical knowledge and context for much of the audience. This leads to the question of what makes any dance endeavor popular.

Clearly the tap students in the audience were working out of the present, indicated by their interest in the modern merger of tap with other current dance forms and new expressions. Yet when I talked with a number of the audience they seemed eager to learn historical context, just perhaps not as history but as a part of their social knowledge, as an extension of knowing who is doing what around them now.

By far though, the best part for both performers and audience seemed to be the freewheeling dance to Eleanor Rigby choreographed by Michelle Dorrance followed by Chloe Arnold's More and Deja vu pieces. These were arguably the most interesting pieces, certainly to me and certainly to the young dancers around me who went from attentive and eager to edge-of-seat (literally) alive. This is when they were able to stretch past their external-style restraints to change from a well-rehearsed, long performed college level into professional performer levels. Dancers who at first didn't seem that noticeable showed themselves as standouts.

This was tap with a modern-dance glance and a hip-hop accent. Tap almost seemed made for a merger with hip hop. Then came a variation on the chair dance from the Copacetics. The dance kids seemed delighted with the chair dance as a novelty.

Concert notes not withstanding, you had to see the enthusiastic response to the performances as a confirmation of tap as a solid dance form and very much alive and kicking (or maybe we should say stepping, stomping, tapping). Not that tap is revived, it seems not to have needed a revival, it has been here in force, just below the attention radar. Anyone with a feeling for rhythm has to love good tap.

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