The explosively enthusiastic welcome received by the Jazz Tap Ensemble at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater last night, at the first of three performances in the Dance America series, was a sign of a powerful new constituency in the dance world.
It's not just the hard-core tap addicts, who spend every free hour honing their own skills, and have been preaching the tap gospel for more than a decade. These people show up at the drop of a heel, and were no doubt on hand in numbers last night. But the size and combustibility of the house also proved that devotion to tap has grown prodigiously among a general audience as well -- it's an encouraging sign for the future of an art recently thought to be on the verge of extinction.
The Los Angeles-based Jazz Tap Ensemble, founded in 1979, is part of a wave of tap revivalism that's been spreading since the late '60s -- an effort, by mostly young artists with modern dance backgrounds, to restore and extend the heritage of the great black jazz dancers of earlier generations, by now well advanced in age. The particular distinction of the Jazz Tap Ensemble is that it's a team operation -- three dancers and three musicians -- and they manage to balance the necessary tap emphasis on individuality of style with a remarkable spirit of creative rapport.
The troupe has been in Washington before. In 1982, they gave a dazzling series of performances in the Smithsonian's "American Dance Experience" series, with Charles (Honi) Coles as guest artist. Since then, there's been a lot of turnover -- all three musicians and one dancer (Linda Sohl-Donnell) of the current lineup are relatively new to the group. Pianist Jeff Colella, bass player Eric von Essen and drummer Jerry Kalaf are experienced, splendidly proficient jazz instrumentalists, and if they don't yet seem to swing quite as engagingly or generate all the interactive magic of their predecessors, they do make a well-matched unit.
As for Sohl-Donnell, she's a winning, very accomplished dancer who appears to offer just the right sort of personality complement to founding members Lynn Dally and Fred Strickler. Camden Richman, whom Sohl-Donnell replaced, had a uniquely bewitching, elfin quality, and in that sense was inimitable; but like her, Sohl-Donnell has a quicksilver sophistication that seems to light up the edges of her stage presence.
The earlier half of the program was rather on the muted and tentative side on the whole, as if the performers were feeling their way with an unaccustomed stage and crowd. It had its share of highlights, though. One such was "Round Midnight," a very affecting, slow solo by Dally, part of a suite of dances she choreographed to Thelonious Monk tunes. Her tipsily tottering steps and loosely slung arms gave the dance a tinge of bluesy melancholy not often associated with tap -- this was the deep side of the ordinarily rambunctious Dally, and very impressive indeed. Sohl-Donnell danced the first part of her "Eclipse" solo without taps, in an airy demonstration of often balletic suavity; then she added taps for the crisply rhythmic close to a Latin beat.
Everything perked up for the second half of the evening. Strickler demonstrated his blistering virtuosity and showmanship with two solos -- "Excursions," to piano music by Samuel Barber, climaxed by a stunning dynamic crescendo; and the overlong but electric, neo-flamenco "Tone Poem," which starts and ends with the dancer seated on a stool, feet chattering like a thousand woodpeckers. He was also splendidly paired with Dally in the red-hot "Jordu," a tour de force of challenge dance. Sohl-Donnell's finest moments came in a scintillating, volatile solo created for her by Eddie Brown, a highly reputed San Francisco dancer who taught both Sohl-Donnell and Richman. As a finale, the troupe served up "Jam With Honi," a sunny, all-stops-out marathon that's become something of a signature number for the Jazz Tap Ensemble. The roof shook with the cheers.