“What is the running time?” asks a ticket holder at the Joyce on Tuesday night.
“An hour and ten minutes,” says the box office attendant, “but you never know, he might get excited.”
To say that Savion Glover is a living legend is an understatement. Glover’s rhythmic ingenuity is unparalleled in the history of tap. He is an artist in the truest sense, operating according to his own idiosyncratic vision. Talent can go in a variety of directions, some artists are drawn towards troupe organization, but Glover tends to lean towards the individualistic rather than the collective, performing his own productions led by his own internalized inspiration.
It’s been five years since he’s performed at the Joyce (the last time was the acclaimed Om), often favoring his home state of Jersey where he has given more frequent performances. His latest show features his longtime collaborator Marshall Davis Jr., accomplished tapper Jeffry Foote, dancer and choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, and dancers Natrea Blake, Samantha Berger, Monique Smith and Megan Gessner.
Light on tap and heavy on concept, the show is inspired by an imaginary conversation between Glover and Gregg Burge – a multi-talented artist lost too young (23 years ago this 4 July) to brain cancer. Burge choreographed Michael Jackson’s “Bad” video, starred as Richie in “A Chorus Line” (on Broadway and screen) and danced alongside Gregory Hines in Donald McKayle’s Duke Ellington musical “Sophisticated Ladies.” He was at his peak when ballroom voguing, hip hop, and jazz dance forms were all bubbling up in a wondrous cauldron of creativity in the 80s. Paula Abdul – a Fosse-inspired choreographer – was making what would become Janet Jackson’s career-defining dances, Madonna was a ballet and Martha Graham-trained pop star. It was a rich time for dance in pop culture, when Broadway moves were not out of place on MTV. A two-time Fred Astaire Award winner, Burge was an exceptional tapper, and a multifaceted artist on a high level that seems lost to us now. It’s clear after some rumination on BaRoQUe’Blak TaP CaFe that Glover was trying to pay homage to not just tap, but dance as the ultimate form of human expression no matter its type, and of the various marriages dance forms can and should have with each other.
If you are aware of the Burge inspiration, the female dancers improvising and milling around with the occasional jazz kick make some sense, though sadly the moves are not as inventive as Fosse or Abdul, and are often yawn-worthy. Otherwise, one would be hard pressed to realize any correlation – not that Glover cares, he is going to do what he’s going to do. The production is just over an hour with no intermission, but has two distinct halves and 19 scenes. The first half sees Glover and his cohorts don baroque and medieval costumes, and he, Davis Jr. and Foote tap on raised wooden platforms. The female dancers glide around and perch on chairs scattered around the ‘cafe,’ watching. Throughout the evening, many non-tap numbers feature in both halves, with mixed results. All of the female dancers are perfectly fine in their way, but the mixture of anxious-riddled solos (one to Bjork) and sumptuous, sassy jazz legs interspersed with tap numbers are hard to marry. Memories of “Riverdance” came to mind, in that, however cheesy it may have been, there was an intellectual and historical resonance to the pairing of flamenco and Irish dancing.
Much of the music in the first half is by French Cafe Ensemble – accordions and cliche French tunes – before Astor Piazzolla’s take on Vivaldi’s Four Seasons closes the first half. The music in the second half opens with Quincy Jones and ends with Stevie Wonder.
If you want to see an hour of tap, this isn’t the right show. If you want to see brief moments of blazing rhythmic inventiveness, you won’t be disappointed. Glover still has the fire, so much so that he nearly drowns out his fellow dancers. It’s tempting to think his microphones are set at a higher volume than his colleagues but, Glover is to tap what heavy metal is to rock: loud, virtuosic and baroque. More sounds come out of Glover than seems possible for his physical movement. There are ripples and rivets, bass beats and high hats. Glover’s body is an instrument that not only creates but morphs into its own trance, rhythm as a channel to a higher power. As a production, Glover’s latest is a mish mash at best, but shows that he himself remains at the top of his own tap game. The roar of the audience, during the tap solos, not just his but those of Marshall Jr. and Foote, were deafening, and show that there is an audience for pure tap.
The long-held struggle of tap as a dance form in the latter part of the 20th and early part of the 21st century is that it has lost a lot of its cultural visibility. Film history is filled with long, ecstatic tap numbers but those days, just like television variety shows, are long gone. Tap is a highly individualized art that doesn’t lend itself easily to troupe organization like ballet, modern, contemporary or even some folk dance forms. It isn’t anti-collaboration it is just anti formula, and tappers themselves are often more akin to musicians. Tap and many of today’s best tappers can be hard to track down, even in New York. If you are lucky you might catch them on a small wooden stage in a jazz club, often unannounced, to see them strut their stuff. While many in the audience were there for the Glover flair, the warm response at the Joyce bodes well for the theater’s fall 2019 programming, which features three tap programs.