Chicago Human Rhythm Project
6 Aug 2001
August 6, 2001
Chicago Sun Times
By Hedy Weiss
For eleven seasons now, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP) has been dedicated to the care, feeding and propagation of tap and percussive dance, showcasing an art form that not only is worthy of preservation, but is open to boundless innovation as well.
Those who attend the project's gala benefit performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre last week, or the subsequent "Legacy" programs performed throughout the weekend at the Dance Center of Columbia College, were treated to intriguing examples of both traditional and groundbreaking forms of "rhythm tap" that were always highly polished and sometimes downright sensational.
At the gala, it was Lane Alexander, founder and artistic director of CHRP, who performed one of the loveliest works-his hybrid of the classical and modern, set to three Bach Partitas played by pianist Stephen Alltop. Bach's exquisite and wonderfully obsessive fugal compositions laid the groundwork for Lane's classic minimalism, as he brilliantly tapped in, under and around the structure of music with great subtlety, elegance and sophistication. A masterful piece.
Approaching percussive dance through the more pounding and athletic forms of hip-hop and breakdancing-with a good dose of army-style basic training, modern dance technique, cartoonish Asian martial arts and dry humor tossed into the mix-was the Israeli ensemble, Sheketak, making its North American debut.
For sheer marathon-level aerobic power and rock concert-style theatrics, this "son of 'Stomp'" group cannot be beat. The troupe's entire one-hour presentation at the gala was expertly choreographed, with the three dancers in a state of almost perpetual macho motion, resting only when the bass player and drummer (a master of sticks and all their percussive possibilities) took to their instruments. The group even invented a sequence that whimsically played off the highly taxing, heart-pounding rigor of their work, amplifying and syncopating their own hard breathing to comic effect. Solos danced in a variety of styles (including one with a quick, funny reference to classical ballet), alternated with group pieces, one of which involved the performers playing with considerable sound and fury on a great assemblage of pots, pans and skillets hanging from an overhead beam.
The "Legacy" program paid rich, affectionate tribute to the distinctive styles and personalities of three longtime master teachers and mentors with Chicago connections-Sammy Dyer, Jimmy Payne Sr. and Tommy Sutton. It also revealed how their spirit and training produced what is now several generations of dancers and choreographers who have made tap their specialty.
The age range of the performers in the "Legacy" show was among its most touching aspects-from the remarkably beautiful and still graceful Muriel Foster, who is 70 but looks and dances like a woman half her age, to a cadre of tiny tots who never missed a beat.
The master tapper on the program was Jimmy Payne Jr., an intense, reed-thin fellow whose highly complex, exceedingly precise, almost motor-driven footwork comes paired with the most introspective, self-effacing, even reticent stage personality. If his face could express even a tiny fragment of the fire of his limbs he'd be a dazzler. As it is, listening to his feet is like listening to a great drummer. A tap classicist with a composer's mind, Payne was at his best in "Mr. Payne," an extended, powerhouse solo accompanied only by bits of a taped interview of his father conducted shortly before he died last year at the age of 94. Payne's son also led the way on "Peanut Vendor," a joyful, Caribbean-flavored group work he choreographed for his new company, Perfect Timing.
A bravura demonstration of the marriage of classic tap and hip-hop could be found in "Can Ya' Feel Me," choreographed by Bril Barrett (a veteran of the national tour of "Riverdance" and many Broadway productions), and performed by Barrett, Martin "Tre" Dumas (whose newly founded company, MADD Rhythms, played a vital part in the overall show) and Jumaane Taylor. Also strutting their stuff with impeccable footwork and true panache was Rhythm I.S.S., the hard-tapping sextet of attractive women whose radiant synchronicity is both stylish and fresh.
On the gala night, awards were presented to: Ann Barzel, the ever-sparkling 96-year-old dance archivist; Fawn Ring, producer of many fine dance programs on WTTW-Channel 11; Mayor Richard M. Daley and his wife, Maggie, for their support of Chicago's cultural life, and Gregory Hines, a major force in the whole tap renaissance. Hines, stuck in Los Angeles after three flight delays, "phoned in" a message, and the gala audience was treated to an excerpt from his recent Showtime movie, "Bojangles," in which the legendary title figure stripped away minstrel makeup and debuted his trademark staircase-tapping act.