July 5, 2012 5:29 pm

Jason Samuels Smith, Joyce Theater, New York

This performance made a vibrant and eloquent case for the affinity between tap and bebop
Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards©Christy Ramirez

Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards

According to the great hoofer Honi Coles, bebop would not have happened without tap: “John Bubbles, of Buck and Bubbles, started dropping his heels. Baapy-do-do, baapy-do-do, bahp-di-do baam baam. And the drummer started listening.” This splendid group show in the spirit and to the music of Charlie Parker does not argue for tap’s precedence over bop; it simply makes a vibrant and eloquent case for their affinity.

The hour started at full throttle with Jason Samuels Smith, its choreographer, soloing to Parker’s mad “Bebop”, laid out beside the dancer by an excellent five-piece band. Samuels Smith tapped around and inside the riffs as well as on
top. His tone was warm and full, and rang from more parts of the foot than seemed possible. He moved in quick jags like a temperamental gab session.

This sharp alternation between jabber and calm added drama but broke the musical line. In the female threesome that followed Samuels Smith, the wondrous Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards showed that you did not have to sacrifice
one for the other. Rich-toned and nimble, she sustained the rhythms through the rests, as Parker does. Her elegant arms and head harmonised with her taps.

Samuels Smith and company may belong to the school of Savion in the speed and power of their beats, but unlike the defiantly gawky Glover – the feet behind Happy Feet – these dancers let their rhythms play out in space and across their bodies. Like the original bebop tappers, they dance when they make music.

Without these dancerly expatiations, the choreographer’s assignment for the women – to tap note for note to five Parker recordings – would have amounted to a dutiful exercise. Instead, the ladies suggested what myriad shapes a rhythmic pattern might take. When Michelle Dorrance, for example, darted in and out of Bird’s tumble of notes, she presented her clear, strong beats as comically broad steps.

Tap proves substantial by itself, less so when paired with almost anything else (the likes of Parker excepted). Hence the problem with the show’s last, blessedly short act. A singer, a narrator, a whole morality play piled atop the band and the tappers in a feat worthy of the Cat in the Hat.

4 stars

Until Saturday, www.joyce.org

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