Tapping Into New Territory

TIMES DANCE CRITIC

"I feel like it's one of my responsibilities to keep the dance alive, to keep it out there, to keep the style burning. . . . "

--Savion Glover, 1996

At the core of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" is a radical retooling of all-American tapdancing, in order to tell the story of the people who created it.

Originally subtitled "A Rap/Tap Discourse on the Staying Power of the Beat," the show makes rhythm the heartbeat of African American identity and traces the evolution of that rhythm from the horrors of the slave ships to the dangers of the urban '90s. The rap in the discourse is shared by characters named 'da voice and 'da singer, while the tap belongs to 'da beat--originally played by tap dance wunderkind Savion Glover, the show's choreographer--and four other dancers in their teens and 20s.

Together they perform a rebellious, improvisational style of tap that has radically updated the art. Glover quit the show last July to pursue concert dance and TV projects, but what he left behind remains different in silhouette, pulse, expressivity and technology from tap as it existed before him.

Produced and directed by George C. Wolfe (who conceived the show with Glover three years ago), the road company of "Noise/Funk" opened Wednesday at the Ahmanson Theatre.

But Los Angeles is more than just another stop on its 13-city tour; it's more like the scene of the crime, for its text by poet Reg. E. Gaines says that the beat "came to a tragic end in L.A.," killed off by Hollywood musicals starting in the 1930s.

At the beginning of Act 2, we see a talented young dancer literally forced by filmmakers into cheap gymnastics ("No beat, just flash!" they demand, ordering retake after retake) and meet a dance team clearly modeled on the high-flying Nicholas Brothers, who do a number called "Now That's Tap" prioritizing satin tuxes, fancy arm moves, showy splits and painted smiles.

The most bitter satire, however, is reserved for tap icon Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, here renamed Uncle Huck-a-Buck and depicted as bug-eyed and grinning while dancing on a staircase with a life-sized Shirley Temple doll called Lil' Dahlin. He also inspires the show's anthem of selling out, delivered in exaggerated minstrel dialect: "Who 'de hell care if I acts 'de fool when I takes a swim in my swimming pool?"

Very much in the style of Wolfe's 1986 theatrical satire of black stereotypes, "The Colored Museum," these sequences are as debatable as they are entertaining. For starters, there's evidence that flash-tappers and some of the other artists being attacked danced in exactly this manner for black audiences long before Hollywood discovered them.

But the movies did undoubtedly distort tap, partly because of bottom-line economics. Many numbers were filmed with the dancers tapping in soft or rubber shoes to prevent the polished or painted floors from having to be resurfaced after every take. And because those dancers knew their tap-sounds would be dubbed in later, they could concentrate on visual presentation, stretching up and out to create a hyperextended, quasi-balletic line.

But Glover's "Noise/Funk" tap choreography isn't about the definition of line; indeed, it scarcely matters what the body looks like in space. "People think tap dancing is legs and arms and all this big ol' smile," he says in a voice-over text used in Act 2. "Naw, it's raw. It's rhythms. It's us. It's ours."

Specifically, it glories in the application of mass: the heavy-footed but supremely musical attack that Glover calls "hitting." "If you can do an eight-bar phrase with your feet, and another person, not a dancer, can understand what you just did, you hit," he says in the same voice-over text. "You expressed yourself. You made a statement."

Knees deeply bent, slumped over and dressed in baggy clothes, the "Noise/Funk" dancers drive their statements down into the floor while utterly obliterating the movies' sleek top-hat-and-tails tap silhouette. Microphones on each of their shoes make bringing in 'da noise a visceral reality. "It is not just acoustic tap anymore," original "Noise/Funk" Broadway sound designer Dan Moses Schreier told Mix Magazine in an article on the show's amplification technology. "What Savion has created is funk tap."

Whatever you call it, the pulse clearly comes from contemporary hip-hop and other street forms rather than from commercial Broadway show tap (a dirty word in Glover's lexicon) or jazz tap, the genteel, feminized concert-dance idiom that kept tap alive in the last two decades largely as a vehicle for middle-aged stylists in evening clothes. Like "Stomp" out of England and "Tap Dogs" out of Australia, "Noise/Funk" creates percussive movement-theater for young proletarian performers energized by the possibilities of this moment and hot to experiment.

Set to a propulsive, eclectic score by Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ann Duquesnay, the show uses tap not merely to showcase the cast's virtuosity or lampoon show-biz cop-outs of the past but as an expressive language capable of depicting the defining moments of African American experience. There's a lynching scene in Act 1 told through tap, for instance, and when Southern blacks are lured North with an illusory promise of freedom, the industrial hell awaiting them is physicalized in a group sequence dominated by the mechanical sounds of tapping on metal--and the scraping of chains.

Life in the 1990s inspires an ironic quartet showing various urban blacks trying to hail a cab and always failing, even the military man waving Colin Powell's autobiography. And besides all the role playing, Glover's choreography gives the dancers plenty of opportunities to be themselves, trade tap riffs, stay real and remain spontaneous.

At least that was his plan back in 1995. There's a question of how well this mission has been sustained since his departure. In one partly improvisational solo in Act 2, for example, Glover's taped voice told us about how much he'd been inspired and influenced by veteran tappers Chuck Green, Lon Chaney, Buster Brown and Jimmy Slyde, while he performed tap sketches of them and showed how they helped form his own style. The solo was intimate, confessional, deeply revelatory: something like a first draft of his tap memoirs.

Now, however, it has become another role-playing assignment, with Baakari Wilder dancing to the same text and list of worthies on Broadway and Derick K. Grant or Jimmy Tate bearing the load at different performances on tour. What would happen if they or their successors asked to pay tribute to different mentors, their own teachers, perhaps--maybe even Glover himself? Would they be allowed the same freedom that Glover enjoyed?

More specifically, can a show or choreographic work built on improvisation and the achievements of unique personalities afford to become engraved in stone? What's more important to preserve: the form of "Noise/Funk" or its creative essence? These are questions that viewers and reviewers must answer for themselves. But the lesson seems obvious: Hailing a cab in New York may be tough for young black males, but changing a hit Broadway musical could be even tougher.

BE THERE

"Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Ends April 26. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m.; Also Sunday evenings, 7:30 p.m., except April 26; Thursday matinees, 2 p.m., on March 26, April 9, April 23. April 26, 2 p.m. only. $15 through $65. (213) 628-2772.

* In Friday's Calendar: Laurie Winer reviews "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk."

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