Hoofed On Bach

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2005

Tap as improvisatory ecstasy: Oh yes. Tap as social commentary: Definitely. Tap and youthful rebellion: Absolutely. Tap as a match for Bach, Bartok and Vivaldi: Say what?

That was the puzzle Savion Glover set for himself in "Classical Savion" at Strathmore on Thursday night. (By the way, the tap dancer has a registered mark after both the title of his show and his name, so let that reassure those wondering just who that might have been up there calling himself "Savion Glover"-- we are dealing here with the certified real thing .) In it, the youthful, dreadlocked master of full-throttle, all-pistons-firing footwork danced in front of a string ensemble playing the kind of classical music you usually listen to in an atmosphere of excruciatingly managed silence.

On the face of it, classical music and tap, particularly Glover's brand of power tap, just don't work together -- one is highly structured, minutely detailed, convention-bound and, frankly, old-fashioned; the other is loose, highly expressive and emotionally free, invented on the spot (or close to it) and all about busting out of convention.

Glover himself is all about busting out of convention, and that, one suspects, is what led him to this unlikely pairing. He's done the Broadway thing ("Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk," among others). He's done the pal-around-with-other-hoofers thing ("Footnotes: the Concert," with Jimmy Slyde and Buster Brown). He's done the collaborate-with-a-jazz-combo thing ("Improvography"). His career has been defined by a search for new ways to frame tap. He has long gotten away from the tux-and-tails variety, promoting a more contemporary, athletic, heavy-hitting form, in which runaway rhythms rev up and explode from his legs and feet. Presentation was never the point; he often danced with his back to the audience, gazing at the floor. It was about the sound.

So maybe it's not so far-fetched to imagine what his astute musical sense and vigor might add to, say, Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." What would "Summer" sound like with a beat?

The program would have worked better but for one thing: One of the most impressive aspects of Glover's dancing is 'da noise. Yet for the most part, the nine musicians and their violins, violas and cellos were hopelessly overpowered by his boots. Balancing the amplification of the taps and the stringed instruments would have helped, and that may have been improved by last night's final performance. On Thursday, however, you had a freight train and you had a chorus of bumblebees. Often you were left to guess at the melody that Glover was dancing to. The sweet, lyrical moments -- particularly in Mendelssohn's Octet in E-flat, or in much of the Bach -- were simply swept away.

But there were points when the music and the tapping merged with terrific force. When the musicians were gathering speed and Glover was riding that crest, it was the personification of what you feel inside when you're listening to the score. Take the climactic violin windstorm in the excerpt from Vivaldi's "Winter," with its fierce, exhilarating drive -- and Glover right inside it, unleashing a hail of taps that splintered into faster and louder particles of sound within the already galloping beat. A lilting excerpt from Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances sent Glover into a surprisingly dreamier state, mellower and not so punchy.

Glover's virtuosity was thrillingly on view throughout, as was his enormous spirit. He looked aglow with sweet pleasure, facing the audience but frequently turning his smile toward the wings. But the beatific look was not to be confused with easygoing effort. Glover can soak a shirt like no one else. In fact, the only pauses in this 90-minute solo tour de force were for shirt changes, from a gorgeous blousey pumpkin-colored one to identical versions in sapphire blue and ruby red.

Even though the result was not completely successful, one couldn't help being impressed with Glover's experimentation here. Perhaps the lesson is that there are limits to where tap can go, at least at this volume. I'd rather either watch and hear Glover's incomparable tap dancing or listen to the strings, but not do both at the same time, because they each require a level of attention I'd rather not be forced to split.

The evening concluded with the members of the excellent jazz band the Otherz joining everyone else onstage for an in-depth riff dubbed "The Stars & Stripes Forever (For Now)" that returned Glover to familiar territory, improvising with the drummer (Brian Grice), pianist (Tommy James), bassist (Andy McCloud) and saxophone player (Patience Higgins) who could best provide him with tendrils of inspiration and then plenty of room to roll.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company