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Vancouver International Tap Festival

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The Vancouver International Tap Festival, a week-long series of tap workshops and master classes and a weekend of public performances, ended tonight. The students must have had a blast: their faculty consisted of almost all of the members of Rasta Thomas' Tap Stars -- yes, that Rasta Thomas -- and Syncopated Ladies, who performed in the "faculty show" last night. Sus Selfjord produced the Festival -- this year was #14 -- and is Executive Director of the Vancouver Tap Dance Society, whose studio my Flamenco teachers rent for classes and workshops; happily, for once, I remembered the poster long enough to order tickets. Because so many of the people who went to the shows were workshop attendees, family members, and other tap aficionados, most of the intros and commentary sounded like shorthand to me, a relative newbie. This must be what most Flamenco shows sound like to "outsiders."

Friday night's performance was called "Super Natural BC Tap," and it showcased a range of styles, as well as collaborations between tap and other dance styles. The Kids - TapCo did a wonderful job. I would guess they were the equivalent of the first level of SAB PD students, and the level for the show went through professional. The second half included an excerpt from Danny Nielson's new piece, "Love.Be.Best.FREE," that will premiere in two weeks and a collaboration called "Tap Variations" that used a single piece of music for multiple choreographies, each featuring a different professional dancer, Danny Nielson, Terry Brock (Portland), and Jessie Sawyers (Seattle).

Dayna Szndrowski, one of the women at the top of my Friday Flamenco class who is also in the advanced class that follows, is a tap dancer, and ever since our teacher asked her to (tap) improvise to a Tarantos silencio from our summer workshop, which blew me away, I've wanted to see her dance tap. Her piece, "I Wish," was set to a remix of Nina Simone speaking -- the sound system wasn't great, and I'm not sure whether we were supposed to understand the words -- followed by singer Andrea Superstein and pianist Doug Balfour's rendition of Bill Taylor and Dick Dallas' "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free." The sound level allowed us to hear the variations in volume as well in rhythm in her tapping, which made it more like sprechsingen than purely instrumental during the music and like a conversation with Nina Simone during the spoken part, and there was a lot of subtlety in her phrasing in this beautiful work.

There was also a brilliant collaboration between tap dancer Susan Nase and Kathak dancer Amika Kuswaha. The longer first section was a capella -- or mostly, since one part featured Nase dancing to Kuswaha's rhythmic chanting -- and the two dancers alternately performed the same rhythms unison and in counterpoint. The piece ended with them dancing to "Laura." I didn't think the collaboration between tap and modern dance was as successful: there wasn't much rhythmic tension or connection between the dancers, and I don't think those are the most natural styles to combine.

I'm guessing it was a coup to have Joel Hanna perform. He did a solo called "You Never Know," which showed a mastery of different styles, and unlike any of the other men who were dancing in a modern style -- there were several young men who performed in tonight's showcase who were doing a deliberately older, more elegant and upright style -- he had a wider range of full-body movement and he oozed with charisma. My Flamenco brain recognized the way he'd stop and walk until he'd explode into the next section, something many male Flamenco dancers do to flame interest. The boys and men who performed on Friday and Saturday night tended to dance leaning forward from the hip joints and while the men in Rasta Thomas' Tap Stars had breakout moments, in ensemble, the men's modern style seems more expertly casual and, ultimately, cool. They didn't demand the same kind of attention: it was as if they knew the attention would come to them. What was fascinating was watching the women. The young women's quintet in the BC showcase on Friday, who performed to an arrangement of a Leon Collins/Dianne Walker piece called "53" showed a lot of stylistic tendencies as the men, as did a lovely blond woman in a black halter dress in tonight's Festival Showcase. (There were no programs tonight; the performers were announced, and I caught few names.) They were very powerful, and at least in that piece, were less interested in looking feminine while not actively trying to fit into a boys club, a la Anybodys.

Friday's program ended with a tribute to the great Dr. Jeni LeGon, by showing a short documentary about her and her influence and legacy through interviews with members of Tapestry Dance Company, whose AD, Acia Gray, said, "Jeni was a hoofer. She could hang with the guys. Her technique was incredible." I remember seeing the scene, "Living in a Great Big Way" from "Hooray with Love" that opens the documentary a long time ago and thinking how strong her movement was, as strong as any of the great men. I saw a piece of that through those young women who were showing their strength. The documentary is on YouTube:

(Fuller excerpts from the films shown in the documentary are on YouTube, too.)

There was a huge contrast between the music, style, and body movement in most of the men's work, especially Rasta Thomas' Tap Stars, and Syncopated Ladies. Syncopated Ladies feels much more commercially produced. Throughout the show, between dance numbers, each of the six women told about part of her life or experience, ending with, "I am a syncopated lady." The dancers -- all of them stunningly beautiful -- had all-out full-body movement from the beginning to the end. The music was contemporary, what you'd hear on "So You Think You Can Dance" or music videos, and much of the body choreography was similar: it had the same discipline, too. There was nothing casual-looking about it. It's not my preferred style of music or movement, partly because it's harder to hear the tapping over the music, and there's little chance to use volume as well as rhythmic dynamics when Beyonce is blaring. (I'm guessing Beyonce was in in there somewhere, because she seems to be everywhere.) Dance-wise, the solos allowed for a wider range of movement style than the highly choreographed ensemble pieces, and it was nice to see the range among the women within the confines of the show style. My favorite piece for the ensemble was the a capella piece, because I could really concentrate on the tapping. As a whole, this show rings all the bells for a successful touring show.

All of the women have a wide range of affiliations and credits. For example, Michelle Dorrance, a Princess Grace Award winner, worked on a piece with the workshop kids, an excerpt from one of her repertory pieces, and she started it by the type of rhythmic clapping and stomping that's common in Flamenco; its influences were very different from what she performed with Syncopated Ladies.

The men from Rasta Thomas' Taps Stars do as well. Joseph Webb choreographed a piece in which the kids recited Haikus about dance they had written: two or three at a time, they would recite their poetry over a rhythm track, and then they had to give the signal to the group to start to tap. Again it reminded me of Flamenco, where you need to know when and where to start the llamada (or "call") within the music. The kids who were reciting literally called the counts, because, like in Flamenco, nothing goes forward -- the ensemble couldn't start -- until they're called to do so, and because the reciting kids rotated in and out, each mini-group was responsible for keeping the ensemble moving.

Dianne ("Lady Di") Walker introduced Rasta Thomas' Tap Stars by explaining to the audience who Thomas is. For those who didn't know, they would have walked away thinking that Thomas and his wife were a modern-day Nureyev and Fonteyn. I've seen Thomas dance ballet, including "Apollo," and, no, he's no Baryshnikov as Walker claimed. I may sound as silly as she, but I'm as sincere when I say that nothing he did in ballet except as a means is as important as producing this show for these men: they are that scary good, and they should be seen by everyone who has even the slightest interest in dance and anyone else. Their Artistic Director and Choreographer, Jason Janas comes from Tapastry Dance Company, and the more experienced men -- Christopher Broughton, Jumaane Taylor, and Joseph Webb -- are like the pianists who can trace their teachers' and mentors' lineage back to Brahms or Beethoven.

When tap or Flamenco dancers dance in unison, I'm looking for how they use the rest of their bodies. While I tend towards preferring the way shorter, less "limby" dancers move -- for both men and women in just about any dance form -- the women in Syncopated Ladies were all terrific both in body movement and tapping. For the men in Rasta Thomas' Tap Stars, in ensemble, I had much more definite preferences. Every man in the group when he danced solo was amazing and distinct from the others, but because of the style, which struck me as sound-based more than movement-based until the solos, I most liked the "baby" of the group, Kyle Wilder, who had less of a difference between the way he moved in ensemble and in solos. He's one of the shorter men and stocky-ish, and he had a real grounded quality to his movement and really wonderful red shoes.

I really loved the spoken intro to their piece, repeated at the end, which, sadly, I don't remember exactly. It spoke to the heritage and legacy. One of the last pieces on the program was created by Maud Arnold, a Syncopated Lady, for the kids in a workshop called "Gregory." Introducing the piece, she said she asked her students if anyone knew Gregory Hines, and after getting a few answers, she gave them homework to watch him dance on YouTube. (I know what my answer would have been: he was in a movie that I understand was with some Baryshnikov guy, but why would anyone watch anyone or anything else when Gregory Hines is on screen or stage? But I digress.) Arnold said that they reported back that he looked like he was having fun. It is a very happy place watching a bunch of kids channeling Gregory Hines having fun.

For the end of the program Dianne Walker taught a full Leon Collins developmental piece, which a large, mixed-aged group performed. She explained that these pieces are generally not performed, but could be used like a curriculum, and as she tried to describe them, they sounded a lot like the Bournonville Schools. So after three nights of thinking "Tap, Flamenco" and "Flamenco, Tap," -- and wanting to steal a young teen who performed a jazzy version of "Moon River" in black capri tights, an Audrey Hepburn blouse, and a small tiara and the young women in the red top who rocked in the "Sway" trio for Flamenco -- ballet made its way in. Now that was nerd heaven.

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I'm so glad you got to this festival -- I've always wanted to go, but the timing is bad for me. Many thanks for such a detailed report.

My heart crinkles every time I think of Gregory Hines. He was a wonderful tapper, but also a stellar example of what it means to be a part of an ongoing tradition -- he was a generous and inspired teacher and mentor.

And Jeni LeGon -- absolutely!

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