Tap superstar Savion Glover effortlessly bridges the jazz and rap generations.
By Debra Cash
Improvography is a word coined by the late Gregory Hines. Neologisms are about grabbing the power to make definitions; they assert that language is not specific or expressive enough to make your meaning clear. When tap dancer Savion Glover uses “Improvography” as the title of his new show, he pays tribute to his beloved mentor, who died, too soon, in 2003.
But adopting the word also stakes a claim: Improvisation, or even the more technically accurate term “structured improvisation” is inadequate to the task ahead. The land we’re entering in Glover’s “Improvography II” represents a whole new landscape and he is its chief living cartographer.
At the height of his physical powers, Glover is what musicians call a monster, a dancer with unparalleled technical chops. At 31, he is a lithe, sexy man with a marathoner’s stamina. In the nearly two decades since his Broadway debut as the “Tap Dance Kid” Glover’s dancing and later, his choreography for himself and others, has ranged from Broadway flash to Sesame Street fun, from too-hip-to-be-believed Nike commercials to a recent program in the spirit of Paul Draper where he took on Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” Bartok, and Mendelssohn. Glover is a superstar, sure, with a registered trademark after his name, but he has retained his street cred with his dressed-down t-shirts and beads, his flying dreadlocks.
Hoofers have a voice as distinctive as those of musicians or writers. Glover’s “voice” is as individual as it is virtuosic. He is tap’s most emphatic rapper, standing his ground by moving swiftly across it. Musically, he grounds himself in a steady, hard-hitting downbeat, making forays into “scratching” with his taps that transform the miked platform he is dancing on into the turntable in his own private club.
But if stop-and-go city traffic and the wheezing clatter of the New York City subway is built into his sound, Glover is equally at home in the classical arena of tap’s earlier generation, the jazz nightclub. For “Improvography II,” Glover is backed by The Otherz, a jazz combo led by pianist Tommy James. After the first couple of minutes you realize that Glover has agreed, politely, respectfully, honorably, to act as a bridge between the hip hop and club dancers who are his generational peers and the visibly delighted jazzmen who are his elders.
He enters the stage to Andy McCloud’s double bass slip slides and pizzicatos and begins a musical conversation with his back to the audience. His oversized saffron shirt glows like the upright bass’ gleaming wood, and as he dances, slowly gets drenched in his sweat. Glover plays his right foot as treble, then left as bass, then joins them together. His arms give him balance, occasionally swinging like the arms of a long jumper winding up to throw his body forward. There are no extra flourishes, no look-at-me entreaties.
What matters, unquestionably, is Glover’s sound. In what turns into a 40 minute-plus solo turn, he dances for each of the musicians: McCloud, James, drummer Brian Grice, reeds player Patience Higgins. The experience is like that of listening to any other great jazz improviser: only half the pleasure is found in the music itself. Equally satisfying is discovering what the musician, in this case Glover, is thinking. Seemingly instantaneously, he decides whether to “play” a long melodic line or subdivide and swing the rhythm, dropping in 16 bars of samba here, a few measures of mambo there, using the balls of his feet as claves and his toe taps as vibrating jingle bells. You want “March of the Wooden Soldiers” from “the Nutcracker?” Okay, Glover seems to say, I can go there, and takes the tune around the bend, sending his feet straight into a fusillade.
If some of the people in his audience don’t catch the subtlety, that’s okay, because the musicians who work with him every night will. Glover, who long ago earned the right to dance to please only himself if he wants, seems to be playing for his colleagues’ pleasure and approval. It’s the sign of a generous spirit, and it will keep his art growing.
And did I mention that Glover’s dancing is spectacular? He can tap at such a blinding speed that you can’t see his feet, and can’t measure the beats, but experience it viscerally, holding on for dear life and hoping that the stage won’t be set on fire from the friction. His explosive joy is infectious. You can’t believe he can keep it going, and you never want it to end.
No improvised show is perfect, of course. When I caught the start of “Improvography II’s” New England run in Lebanon, New Hampshire in mid-April, Glover wandered into a few improvisational cul de sacs. He has also decided to scat sing a little — why not, it’s his show — but he’s no Leo Watson or Sammy Davis Jr. The miked stage in Lebanon pumped up the volume in specific locations, making his taps ring out painfully, like hammered nails.
Tap dancers have always been honor bound to pass the torch of their art to the next generation and Glover is playing his part. The dancers of “Chapter IV” — Maurice Chestnut, Ashley DeForest, and Cartier “Big Coop” Williams — are very different types. Williams, who danced in Boston in 2000 when he was ten, takes Glover’s lead with his forceful downbeat and thrilling ability to dance through every part of his shoe, including running on his heels. Maurice Chestnut’s suspended, light-over-the-floor technique reminds me of Steve Condos and Jimmy Slyde and gives him room to be intricate and inventive. Ashley DeForest, tossing her blonde bangs out of her eyes, has an appealing ease in complicated combinations as if her tapping were materializing without her knowledge, somewhere near the hem of her blue jeans.
The trio is terrific when dancing with Glover in his roiling “Stars and Stripes Forever, For Now.” Andy McCloud sets up a strain on his bass slyly reminiscent to the theme from “Mission Impossible” and the dance unfolds into a hard-hitting blues. When Glover pledges allegiance, his oath is to the legacy of tap dancing itself.
Savion Glover in “Improvography II” will appear at the Flynn Center in Burlington, VT on May 3, 2005; at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston, MA on May 6-8, 2005; at the Providence Performing Arts Center in Providence, RI, on May 20, 2005; and the Palace Theatre in Waterbury, CT on May 21, 2005. Glover will appear with guest Jimmy Slyde and Dianne Walker at Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, MA on June 21-26, 2005.