Any solo art form demands that certain something beyond technical acumen; jazz tap dancing requires it in spades. So it was instructive to compare the radically different steps and stylings of the Los Angeles-based, 73-year-old master hoofer Eddie Brown and the exacting young Frenchman Chris Belliou, both of whom appeared in a long, multifaceted program performed by Belliou's D.C. Rhythm Ensemble Saturday night at the French Embassy.
Something of a cross between Sammy Davis Jr. and Honi Coles, the lean and angular Brown -- who began his career dancing with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and has since collaborated with a host of jazz greats -- ascribes to the less-is-more school of hoofing. Dressed in a natty, double-breasted suit, a broad-brimmed hat tilted rakishly across his forehead, he first joined the sterling Abadey Jazz Quartet for an improvised give and take to "For Dancers Only." With his arms dangling at his sides, his fingers casually curled, his body hinged slightly forward at the hips, Brown truly let his feet do the talking. A combination of nonstop, aggressive jabbering and laid-back muttering, his dancing allowed one to make note of silences, accents and layers of rhythmic invention.
After intermission, we got a second look at this master of the offhand when he appeared with Belliou and drummer Nasar Abadey in yet another improvisation. While wiry, mustachioed Belliou pulled out every dazzling slide, turn and rapid-fire combination in the book, Brown remained minimally elegant and made the more lasting impression. This is not to say that the younger gentleman hasn't got what it takes. He's a technical virtuoso, produces a fine, clear sound and looks chic and ever-alert. But he's also a control freak, never letting down his guard or really communicating with the spectator.
As a choreographer and promoter of his form, however, Belliou is doing more than his share. The rest of Saturday night's program featured his D.C. Rhythm Ensemble (a professional trio made up of Belliou, Cassandra Baker and Artis Brienzo, a pre-professional troupe, and a junior company) in a host of his imaginatively choreographed works. His original shape and groupings made the kids look sharp and blissfully un-cutesy, and the adult amateurs' routine proved basic but sophisticated. While still more like a precision drill team than a full-blown, original act, Belliou, Baker and Brienzo shone in a variety of numbers that made use of contemporary and traditional steps and sounds.