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4 Jul 2012


Tapping to Tunes When Charlie Parker Is Calling Them

Jason Samuels Smith at Joyce Theater

Photographs by Ruby Washington/The New York Times

Jason Samuels Smith and Company Mr. Smith led a program of tap at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday that showed his command of balance and included dances choreographed to bebop.


For most recent summers, tap dance at the Joyce Theater has meant Savion Glover, the era’s dominant and increasingly insular figure. This week, however, there are world-class tap dancers at the Joyce, and Mr. Glover is not among them. It is Jason Samuels Smith’s turn to present his idea of tap, a great art currently in need of direction.

Mr. Smith and the majority of his cast members are former associates of Mr. Glover, and like him they are in the jazz tradition. They have appeared at the Joyce before, as members of theJazz Tap Ensemble and in shared programs, but Tuesday’s program was the first full evening under Mr. Smith’s direction. In contrast to Mr. Glover’s usual sprawl this show is disciplined to a fault, a brisk hour based around a dominant figure of an earlier era, the game-changing saxophonist Charlie Parker.

It starts with a bang: Mr. Smith in a white jacket, baby-blue shirt and pink tie going at “Bebop,” one of Parker’s steeplechase compositions, with a fine five-piece jazz band. Mr. Smith attacks it in chunks, improvising sympathetically as the musicians take solos. Ten years ago he was an innovator in perverse virtuosity: inverting steps, transferring them to odd edges of the foot. Now those innovations look natural, blending in as he pushes the envelope elsewhere.

And the pushing now looks less like showboating and more like artistic expression, especially as Mr. Smith eases into Horace Silver’s ballad “Lonely Woman.” A foot escapes like a skittering crab or stitches steadily as the other one embroiders around it prettily, but what impresses most is how slowly Mr. Smith can do steps that normally require speed in their fight against gravity. His off-balance moments sing the blues.

He is a charmer too. Like a flamenco dancer he milks drama out of removing his jacket and rolling up his sleeves. He teases the finish, hesitating with a smile before caressing the floor one last time. For his third number he dances without accompaniment, hopping among three squares of light. The visual conceit is hardly original, but it helps a viewer distinguish between the grooves and meters Mr. Smith samples, while the rhythmic lines he sustains and implies conjure the rarer, aural illusion of two or three dancers.

The three dancers to whom he cedes the middle of the show are no illusion. They are Chloé Arnold, Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, performing excerpts from “Charlie’s Angels,” which Mr. Smith presented in full at the Kitchen in 2009. The idea — to tap the intricate solos in Parker recordings as those recordings play — is close to tap karaoke, an exercise better suited to the practice room than the stage. But it’s a pleasure to see these women rise to the challenge differently.

Ms. Arnold, a hard worker, is the least distinguished, but she captures some of the friskiness in the clipped bebop cadences. Ms. Dorrance, more technically assured, can add character, using her gangly frame to make out of the music’s zigzags a comedy of splayed knees and deadpan pauses. She’s a delight.

If Ms. Sumbry-Edwards is not the greatest tap dancer of our time — as I have long believed her to be and as Mr. Smith has attested — then she is surely the most finished. Look at the subtle sass of her shoulders, the elegance of her hinging elbow. Tracing a circle on the floor, this foot-drummer can seem to bend notes like a saxophonist. And the sonic clarity: it’s as if someone has filtered out all the noise.

Ms. Sumbry-Edwards is the music, but replicating Charlie Parker is too easy for her. The assignment fences her in, and the Joyce program’s final selection doesn’t give her much more room. This is “Chasing the Bird,” an experiment in “dance opera.” Craig Grant’s incoherent text, much of it mercifully drowned out by the tapping, refers to Parker but flails at more general allegory, a lame morality tale against selling out.

It’s like watching a high-school assembly skit performed by dancers of jaw-dropping ability. The three women lock together in briefly thrilling counterpoint, and some of Mr. Smith’s choreography manages to be both sexy and uncompromising. But the distance between the caliber of the dancers and the quality of the dramaturgy gapes.

“Chasing the Bird” isn’t the direction tap needs. A program note indicates “the evolution of an idea,” which is fair enough as long as the evolution doesn’t stop here. These tap dancers, and more where they came from, keep evolving. Whether Mr. Smith will be the person to discover how to display that growth onstage is a question this program leaves open.