Dance: Fleeting Onstage, Forever on DVD
[…] One part of the history of tap-dancing is amply represented on DVD: the Hollywood part. It’s not just the classics of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. You can find obscure movies worth seeing only for cameos by the Nicholas Brothers or lesser-known hoofers, dancers who shuffled into the immortality of film back when tap was ubiquitous in American popular culture.
Sets Featuring Fonteyn, the Cunningham Company and Others
At its founding in 1979 in Southern California, the company was at the forefront of a generation of dancers who sought to take the branch of tap that developed with jazz and transfer it to the format of modern dance, with touring troupes and repertories of choreography. Some of that history is recounted on Disc 1, which, in focusing on early material, most strongly conveys both the excitement and the awkwardness of the enterprise. (The light touch and pixie charm of one founding member, Camden Richman, pops out.) But tap history speaks wordlessly throughout.
Lynn Dally, the company’s stalwart artistic director, made the selections, and her voice-over is mostly unobtrusive. Much of the video footage, shot from 1979 to 2012, is less than ideal in technical quality, and short excerpts turn sections of the discs into mere highlight reels. On the upside, splicing together performances of the same work across the years yields insights into the function of repertory and how different dancers can change a piece. The sound is good, and the close connections between dancers and musicians are always clear.
A salient feature of performances by this company and others like it was the regular inclusion of tap elders. Critics often noted how these seasoned guests tended to upstage the troupes that had invited them. Selflessly or inadvertently, these discs reproduce that pattern. On Disc 4, the Nicholas Brothers and the great Honi Coles, just by being themselves, though past their prime, outshine pale renditions of Hollywood numbers by younger company members.
Disc 3 contains gorgeous performances by the West Coast master Eddie Brown and the incomparable Jimmy Slyde. Both, impossibly cool while complexly swinging, are captured here in a late-but-still-great stage touched by the miraculous.
The disc is also notable for the group compositions they created with, and for, the ensemble. Other examples of this genre — collective choreography drawn from a soloist accustomed to ad-libbing — are underwhelming, but Slyde’s “Interplay” finds a rare balance between set structure and prompts for individualizing improvisation.
It’s not all about the departed. There are younger dazzlers: Sam Weber, a mild-mannered virtuoso whose artistry required a concert stage; eye-and-earcatching apprentices (Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant and Michelle Dorrance, among others) who have since become leaders. Yet Disc 5 is bittersweet, with a mini-documentary about Gregory Hines, who died in 2003 at 57. His modernizing musicality, his in-the-moment openness, his irreplaceable charisma — this footage shows why the live performances of this movie star were so life-enhancing. Thankfully, Jazz Tap Ensemble has preserved some of that on disc.
by Brian Seibert
Jazz Tap Originals: A Collection of Live Performances (1979–2012). Lynn Dally, Jazz Tap Ensemble, Inc., 2014, 5 DVDs, $99.95, Educational/Institutional Price $375.00
Two men dressed in blue coveralls, their faces semi-obscured by the big hairdos, beards, and large-frame glasses typical of 1983 fashion, syncopate each other’s footsteps with successive accents that stem from their hands. With simply four drumsticks and their own bodies, these experimentalists “play” a rhythmically complex “Tune for KB” in an arrangement that is as much a dance as it is a musical score. In this choreo-composition, Keith Terry and Paul Arslanian embody the spirit and mission of the Jazz Tap Ensemble (JTE), a company dedicated to the interplay between dancers and musicians and the synchrony of their respective arts. Lynn Dally’s recent DVD anthology, Jazz Tap Originals: A Collection of Live Performances (1979–2012), showcases repertoire spanning over 30 years, performatively highlighting the centenary relationship between jazz music and tap dance.Read more...
While each disc encapsulates a different aspect of the company’s aesthetic, the five discs coalesce under a series of Africanist principles that both tap dance and jazz music share: call-and-response, polyrhythm, contrariety, ephebism, high-affect juxtaposition, and improvisation. While this Africanist presence remains a constant, the manner in which it presents itself on stage develops through the discs, shifting with new casts and at different points throughout Dally’s career. Viewing the anthology in its entirety allows viewers to see choreographic and musical mainstays evolve over time, rhythmically, spatially, and even fashionably. On Disc One a split screen shows viewers a 1982 version of “Sweet Blues” performed as a solo by Dally with Arslanian on piano and a version of the same composition performed by Dally a decade later featuring pianist Tom Garvin. As the sequence demonstrates, the choreographic framework remained almost unchanged between 1982 and 1992, but each performance allowed rhythmic reinterpretation to manifest. The juxtaposition of the two versions allows their unique sonic particularities to surface and, at the same time, creates a third composition: the score that surfaces when one distinct rhythm is laid over another. The film thus creates its own counterpoint, collapsing time and space into a series of complementary rhythms.
Dally’s diachronic evolution as a dancer can be seen in perfect synchronicity: her changing relationship to body and space becomes hyper-visible in the side-by-side placement of these two performances. Her costumes—one a low cut black tunic, tightly cinched by a belt at the waist, the other an oversized silk blouse in an electric nineties’ shade of green—are not the only differences. Dally’s upper body mirrors that of her distinctive sound quality in each iteration, making her more seasoned tone visible by dint of her fluid por de bras in the later version. While this might have something to do with the apparent shift in her gaze from one decidedly downward (1982) to one that seems to implicate the heavens above (1992), it might also be the result of a changing relationship to the music itself. This dance, no matter how inwardly focused it appears to be, entails an intimate connection to the bluesy rhythms as interpreted by Arslanian and Garvin. Dally recalls being, “totally and endlessly inspired by the blues —the structure, the feel, and by all the music of Thelonious Monk.” This would explain the over half dozen choreographies the company created in response to Monk’s music: JTE gave classic works such as “Monk’s Dream,” “Evidence,” “Misterioso,” “Round Midnight,” “Blue Monk,” and “Rhythm-a-ning” visible motility while contributing volume and mass to an already rich set of musical notes.
The collection’s first disc, Blues Legacy: Blues, Rock, BeBop, & Monk…Early Influences, lays the foundation for the series, introducing its audience to the company’s founding members and some of the original players. Producing editor Cari Ann Shim Sham intersperses this disc’s 57 minutes of company rep with retro backstage B-roll, as Dally, Strickler, and Richman discuss the canon of jazz and tap legends that shaped them as individual dancers and contributed to the more global influence of jazz on tap and vice versa. Richman explains
In the forties…when there was a big shift from swing to bop, the tap dancers also made this shift—they became much more complex rhythmically, and their syncopations became very exciting and…when Baby Lawrence performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival…they called themselves the jazz tap percussionists, and there was a parallel here between the history of jazz and the history of tap dance, and I think a lot of people haven’t heard this history, and it needs to be known.
The remaining discs in Dally’s anthology continue to articulate this history. Discs One and Two, in particular, make the two forms’ interdependence and congruent evolution visible to the eye and audible to the ear.
Disc Two, Percussion Mania-African, Latin Jazz, Samba, Worldbeat, Body Music, evidences the reason that tap dancers have long struggled with a collective identity crisis: is the tapper a dancer or a musician? According to the second disc, the tapper can be both. The disc opens with an infectious score written by Jerry Kalaf played by seven tap musicians: eight hands tap four types of drums while six more hands accent the down beat with a triangle, wood block, and set of egg shakers. After a few short bars of “Hands On” (1997), Channing Cook Holmes stands up from his bongos and begins to dance with his feet. He maintains eye contact with his fellow musicians and allows his whole body to absorb the polyrhythmic beat. The music builds as several of the percussionists leave their objects behind and begin to use the instruments they already possess; clapping hands and tapping feet, the percussionists make their way to center, giving the composition a texture only the body is capable of providing. The musicians qua dancers cut the rhythm in half with their slow and controlled use of the upper body, giving off the impression that a corps de ballet has usurped the stage. If one shifts one’s gaze to stage left and focuses on the musicians qua dancers, however, one will find that the drummers’ hands move in high affect juxtaposition to the tap dancers’ arms in center. Two tempos, styles of movement, and distinct modes of sound production, all unified by rhythm and expressed through eight highly individualized bodies moving in unison. The distinction between dancer and musician is further blurred in pieces such as “Hey Rube” (1983), where one gets a good taste of Terry’s unique style of body music, as he and Richman perform a titillating duet a capella; they leave not a surface of the body untouched nor a unique rhythm unexplored. The playful nature of JTE’s company members emerges as the two move sound through space in patterns that resemble everything from a Patty Cake to the act of swatting a fly. Disc Two is filled with these sorts of spirited connections—Derick Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards in “Reunion Blues” (1994), for example, or Josette Wiggan, Channing Cook Holmes, and Joseph Wiggan in “Trio” (2005). Whether it is the way a dancer relates to the music or the connection she feels to her partner, relationships serve an important role in these two arts.
The anthology’s last three discs, Masters and Mentors, illustrate the significance of relationships across time. Because so little of tap’s history has been written down, the men and women who have passed down the form by way of body and sound, are responsible for tap’s legacy and its future. Discs Three through Five pay tribute to the masters and mentors of the art, and honor the range of styles tap dance has seen over the last century. Notable guests such as Eddie Brown, known for his long career as a tap soloist in nightclubs alongside such jazz greats as Jimmie Lunceford, Duke Ellington, and Dizzie Gillespie, and Jimmy Slyde, who regularly performed with 1930’s big bands such as the Count Basie Orchestra, play feature roles in the collection’s third disc, Rhythm Tap Legends. An opening duet danced by a 73-year-old Eddie Brown and nine-year old Jason Rodgers shows the power of mentorship and its ability to bridge generations. As the two dance Brown’s “B.S. Chorus,” a young Rodgers dances confidently and energetically, embodying the Africanist aesthetic of ephebism. Still, he occasionally glances up at Brown for a smirk of approval. That this relationship is captured in the anthology becomes all the more important when viewers learn that Brown died only one year after his memorable performance with Rodgers. This DVD also captures Slyde reminiscing a bit about the dancers who inspired him—Steve Condos, Cookie Cook, Ralph Brown—and the dancers he has seen mature, like JTE company member Derick Grant, who, Slyde claims was like a “little Babe Ruth” growing up in Boston and major inspiration to him.
One of the strengths of the last three discs is the way they materialize the passing down of an aural (and oral) tradition by way of the body. Seeing Brown dance alongside Rodgers, or Dally share the stage with one of her biggest influences, Brenda Bufalino, in a duet choreographed to Monk’s “In Walked Bud,” shows the body as a vessel for absorbing history and as an instrument for change. Years of rhythmic collaboration and friendship between Dally and Bufalino made them pioneers in securing level ground for women in tap. “In Walked Bud” represents just that, a reclaiming of the stage that had for so long been dominated by men. In addition to showing how a company like JTE helped to equalize the tap dance stage, this collection of footage reveals how it integrated a historically racialized space. Despite tap’s intrinsic hybridity, the black and white bodies responsible for its development have found themselves on separate stages. Pieces like “Interplay” (1995) choreographed by Slyde and performed by Dally’s diverse company, however, advocate for the integration of tap dance. “Interplay” is as much collaboration as it is an opportunity for individual company members to have a moment in the spotlight. At times the tap dancers provide the only audible music while at others they hold still and let the musicians solo. Everyone plays together in this dance; rhythmic communication dissolves markers and boundaries.
“Dissolving Boundaries” could in fact be another name for Discs Four and Five, which feature some of the many famous guests JTE has shared the stage with over the last three decades. The Entertainers and New Ideas continue the work of Disc Three, bridging generational gaps, recategorizing distinctions between dancers and musicians, and disbanding long-seen racial divides on the tap dance stage. These two discs also bring together the array of styles that both tap and jazz have contributed to America’s identity thus showing the complexity of these performance mediums and challenging the notion that a particular type of body belongs to a particular aesthetic.
While dancers like Brown or Slyde were well known performers to tap dancers of a certain era, they did not receive the same recognition outside the tap community that performers like Bill Robinson or Fred Astaire gained from long term exposure on the Hollywood screen. The Entertainers convokes both the living and the dead, bringing in guest artists such as Charles “Honi” Coles and the Nicholas Brothers to share the stage with the rest of the JTE ensemble as well as paying tribute to dancers like Eleanor Powell and the Condos Brothers by way of reconstructing classic choreographies of “The Hollywood Journey.” Over the course of the disc’s 54 minutes, one gets to know these innovators, not just as dancers or choreographers, but also as people. We watch many of these guests improvise, experience the way they seem to fit in perfectly with the rest of the company (despite the apparent discrepancy in age), listen to them share stories—even sing. They are true “entertainers,” but also bear witness to the challenges many black artists experienced in an industry run by white men. For those dancers no longer living, JTE honors their contribution by restaging immortal compositions. Coles pays respect to his mentor, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson with his rendition of “Doin’ the New Low Down.” As Dally remarks, “we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” Josette Wiggan and Michelle Dorrance perform a high-energy tribute to the Nicholas Brothers in their rendering of the Hollywood routine “Lucky Number” (1936). In addition to capturing the spirit of the Brothers, these women teach us that gender, color, and age are not requisite for “authentic” reconstructions, as other famous tap tributes have led audiences to believe over the years.
New Ideas, the collection’s final disc, is a tribute to a man that, “changed our lives …his generosity, sense of humor, and true creativity inspired everyone, dancer and non-dancer alike.”7 It tracks Gregory Hines’ long-standing relationship with JTE, one that survived up through the performer’s last few months of life. We see Hines in his element, performing in concert, rehearsing with the company, giving master classes across Los Angeles, and offering true artistry in several iterations of his work “Groove” that he created for JTE in 1998. His life was far too short, but New Ideas allows viewers to see a glimpse of the full life he lived and the great number of contributions he made to American dance. The final disc also shows the evolution of Dally’s choreography for JTE. Her early work was solely grounded in tap dance and evolved to encompass rhythm tap, flamenco, modern, and bharata natyam. “Solea” (2003) shows that tap is not just about collapsing binaries, but rather an opportunity to bring different worlds together through music.
Jazz Tap Originals celebrates inclusivity and creativity, foregrounding the interplay among people, the arts, and difference. As a work of art, it represents a virtuosic display of both tap dance and jazz. As a choreographic tool, it shows the benefits of collaboration and experimentation. As a film, it preserves histories, capturing people and stories as fleeting as performance itself. This anthology is an instrument for anyone wishing to explore concrete ways in which the Africanist aesthetic manifests on the American stage, understand the interdependency of tap dance and jazz, or examine how art can challenge preconceived binaries, bringing people together through rhythm. Lynn Dally’s new work will prove an invaluable resource for teachers, artists, and art enthusiasts alike.
by Brynn Wein Shiovitz