The amazing thing about the appearance by the Jazz Tap Ensemble at the University of Maryland's Tawes Theatre Saturday night was how much real pleasure it gave, despite what seemed like a conspiracy of external forces to defeat its purposes.

Tawes turned out to be nothing but an obstacle course for tap. Jazz tap is an art of anatomical percussion -- it has to sound, and it has to be heard. The flooring and hall acoustics made this impossible, except for isolated passages. It's also nice to be able to see, especially feet, but Tawes' sight lines put up a formidable barrier. Tap, moreover, needs intimacy, but the recessed stage and i1953701993the artists at the wrong end of a telescope.

All these factors took an inevitable toll. Numbers that set the stage ablaze in JTE's previous, vastly successful Washington visits barely ignited a spark or two here. The audience, however, stayed with it, and by evening's end, a cumulative wave of appreciation broke loose in sustained cheers and applause.

Discountingsw,-3 sk,3 the drawbacks, there was much to savor. Among the highlights was the sly, jousting banter between Lynn Dally and Fred Strickler in "Jordu," in which she corners him with a barrage of taps; the moody reverie of Dally's solos to Gershwin standards, her slow foot slides like a skater's blades kissing the ice; and Strickler daringly turning up the rhythmic throttle in his solo to Samuel Barber's rambling "Excursions." Also, the drawling, hands-in-pockets insouciance of the "Blues Suite" numbers and the suave partnering and Latin piquancy of "Bossa Nova," featuring Strickler and the newest JTE member, the lanky, Canadian-born Heather Cornell.Strickler will soon be leaving to pursue a separate career. It'll be a big loss; the memories of his virtuosity and the jaunty sophistication of his style will be hard to erase. Dally, JTE's artistic director, will surely hold the fort, though. Her warmth and creative skills, finding new avenues for jazz tap in blendings with modern dance, country dance and other idioms, have been mainstays of JTE's excellence.

The musicians were pianist Jeff Colella, bassist Eric von Essen and percussionist Jerry Kalaf.