The Jersey City resident is an Emmy-winning choreographer and founded the annual Los Angeles Tap Festival.
He still hasn’t had his own season playing the Joyce Theater, though—New York's prime destination for dance. But that happens this week.
The Joyce engagement gives a special thrill to Smith, who attended Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities just down the street. "I wasn’t as deep into the dance world as I am now," he says, "but when I was dancing in high school, I definitely looked at that place and said, ‘Maybe one day I’ll get a chance to perform in there.’ "
Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards will be in the cast, along with dancers Michelle Dorrance, Chloe Arnold and Baakari Wilder; singer Zakiya Young and actor Frank Harts. The show is a work-in-progress of sorts, because Smith and his collaborators, including director Dulé Hill, are working toward the day when they can launch a tap show that will run for months or even years.
Building on the foundation of Smith’s 2009 piece "Charlie’s Angels: A Tribute to Charlie Parker," the newly constituted evening includes two premieres. "Imagine" is a solo, opening the program on a personal note as Smith’s taps illustrate the impact the legendary saxophonist’s music had on him.
"He had the soul of a dancer," Smith says.
The hour-long show expands from there, including excerpts from "Charlie’s Angels" and ending with a new finale, "Chasin’ the Bird," where narrative and theatrical elements come into play. (Parker’s nickname was "Bird.")
Smith is in his early 30s, but he says that, unlike his peers, he finds little reward in dancing to the popular music of today. He gets his inspiration from bebop.
"I felt like this style would revive my spirit, and would make me want to create something on another level," he says.
Musical director Theo Hill has created a through line for the show, but fans will recognize "Salt Peanuts," "Donna Lee," "Bird Gets the Worm" and "Half Nelson," among other Parker classics.
Speaking of the dances he has created, Smith says: "Each piece told a little story about that tune, or how I felt about it. I was trying to show people what this music looked like."
Smith is generous when praising his colleagues, but he has especially nice things to say about one of his collaborators in this engagement, Sumbry-Edwards.
"Her phrasing, her clarity, her timing, her speed," Smith enthuses. "It’s the space that she puts in her dancing, and the breath—the freedom with which she expresses her musicality."
He’s not done yet. "It’s her delivery. It’s her grace. It’s her explosiveness, but then it’s her subtleties. It’s the way that she’s completely dynamic when she’s dancing. She’s the past. She’s the present. She’s the future."
Compliments like these would be nice to hear from anyone. But coming from someone as acclaimed as Smith, they’re something more.
Robert Johnson: firstname.lastname@example.org