Over the last quarter-century, Rhapsody in Taps has become a one-stop tap emporium -- a locally based ensemble performing jazz tap, flash tap, musical comedy tap and experiments juxtaposing tap and world music.
Beginning with 30 minutes of video hash (clips with no identifying data), a three-hour 25th anniversary program at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre on Saturday surveyed the range of styles that choreographer-artistic director Linda Sohl-Ellison has groomed her company to dance in the same highly proficient yet strangely impersonal manner.
The late Gregory Hines worked with the company 16 years ago, and a compilation of rehearsal footage Saturday showed him creating steps displaying his memorably rough-edged, street-influenced attack -- only to have all that deliberate roughness vanish in the company’s bland performance of his “Toeing the 3rd and Fifth.”
Similarly, the essays in world music stayed at a level of polite cultural tourism, whether it was Bob Carroll executing intricate virtuoso steps to rhythmic Balinese chant (“Kecak”) or Sohl-Ellison matching step patterns to the throb of Monti Ellison’s exotic bow-shaped instrument (“Espiritu”). Guests Steve Zee and Jimmy Fisher got beyond politesse to daunting statements of power tap, but even Sohl-Ellison’s remarkably sophisticated group showpiece, “Stroke of the Oarsmen,” needed a far more rhapsodic performance than Rhapsody in Taps could muster.
Her new “Laughing With Tears” used invigorating klezmer music by Leo Chelyapov for a deft, tongue-in-cheek suite in which everyone initially wore black robes and hats while cheerfully amalgamating traditional Jewish lore and Slavic folk dancing with an arsenal of tap steps.
No Hassidic visionary ever imagined a tap hora -- but Sohl-Ellison filled that gap in cultural history just as costume designer Ro George outfitted the company in fabrics and colors that Eastern European Jews would undoubtedly have worn under their robes if they’d been able to shop in West Hollywood. Call the result “Fiddler on the Hoof,” for it belonged to the musical comedy world, body and soul.
A different kind of highlight: the terrific untitled performance featuring Zee, Christy Hernandez and Fred Strickler, distinguished former company members.
Musical values stayed admirable, whether the accompaniment came from Ellison, the company’s versatile jazz quintet, I Nyoman Wenten’s Balinese chanters or the guest klezmer instrumentalists. Indeed, you could speculate that Sohl-Ellison decided long ago that the emotion in a Rhapsody in Taps performance would come from what you hear, with the dancing lightly, smoothly, adroitly complementing the musicianship, nothing more.
That’s not the only way to tap -- but it’s earned her a 25-year run, no small achievement in Los Angeles. And there’s a whole realm of feeling left for her to explore in the next 25 years.