Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Virtuosity, or, how I came to understand both jazz and tap dancing in a particularly productive and enjoyable evening

I barely managed to squeak into NYC in time to go see two dance companies perform in a double-bill* at the Joyce Theater last friday.  Very few people in my acquaintance actually believe in the existence of Luck as a fundamental substrate in the universe; perhaps I just have a way with transportation methods, that makes them nice to me.

The first company was choreographed by and bore the name of Jason Samuels Smith, a ferocious tap-dancer with a surprisingly small number of feet**.  This was the first professional tap concert I've ever seen live; my past encounters have been limited to student groups of varying caliber and enthusiasm (uncorrelated), and a handful of Hollywood musicals.

From seat #B3, two rows from the stage and all the way to the left, I was closer to the dancers feet than the dancers themselves - and those feet were performing activities I could barely follow.  The first piece, "A.C.G.I.: Anybody Can Get It" (2009) provided a smorgasbord of dynamism and staccato athleticism as the five** dancers slid from perfect and insanely complex rhythmic unison in and out of teetering solos, to the accompaniment of an on-stage 3-piece jazz band.

Choreographically, though, there's not much to it.  The tap dancers tapdance.  If they're in unison, they're in formation; if they're soloing, the other four are in a line behind them, keeping time.  Occasionally the formations pulsate, rotate, or invert.  In fact other than their feet, they seem to pretty much do whatever they want to do (or, occasionally, need to do to stay upright).  To one of my companions, this freeformness was downright irritating; their arms were flying all over the place, lacking both rhyme AND reason!  No modern dance choreographer (let alone Ballet) would leave the visual aspect of a dance looking so unfinished.  Alas for optimistic titles.

I think it was actually the next piece really helped me to G.I..  This was "Chasing the Bird" (2009, Excerpts) and ode to Jazz great Charlie Parker, in which three women each took on the role of an instrument in Charlie's songs and learned to play its part with her tap shoes - rhythm, pitch, inflection, as much as could possibly be translated into an entirely separate medium.  The first part introduced this idea by dancing through one complete song: riffs, solos, harmonies, musical conversations.  In the second, the music carried through about halfway and then, slowly, faded away.  And my sensation of listening to music transferred, smoothly, to the sensations of watching the Tap.  The whole skeleton of the music was still there, the bones of rhythm and tendons of conversation, and attached to it like a halo was the physical dynamism and personality of the dancers themselves.

Tap dance has the same relationship to other kinds of dance as jazz has with the rest of music: half its soul is in the pursuit of the mercurial, fractal, and baroque virtuosity that the other half of its soul, the pure personality of the performer, shines through.  The goal isn't to put on a character or transport the audience to another world.  The world of tap and jazz is right here, right now, and these amazing talented people can do incredible things before your eyes, pouring their being into a instantaneous and fleeting bit of magic.  That's really exciting!  If you know enough to understand what's going on.

I wouldn't say I really understand either form, and each separately washes over me like a foreign language.  But I do speak a little dance, and a little music - and the slow, steady reveal of their holographic connection in Jason Samuels Smith's work gave me a taste of that world.


"I would imagine that if you could understand Morse code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy."
-Mitch Hedberg

* The second company is Trey McIntyre Project, and they're also worth talking about: but they're kind of off-topic for this post.  Next time I'll do something that's more standard dance-criticism.
** He had two feet.  It sounded like a lot more to me.
*** ethnically- and gender-diverse

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