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In the News > The Electric Rhythms of Savion Glover

28 Apr 2005

Thursday, April 28, 2005 The electric rhythms of Savion Glover By CLAUDIA LA ROCCO Associated Press Writer 1,983 words 28 April 2005 NEW YORK (AP) - "What's that? What is that?" A young man mouths the words to his friends as he presses his knuckles to his goatee, shaking his head in disbelief at what he sees happening on stage. A little girl in the front row laughs with delight. But most people just stare, openmouthed or smiling, including a line of latecomers snaking up the staircase of the packed B.B. King Blues Club & Grill. On stage, working around a tight jazz quartet called The Otherz, is the man who has been called a miracle, a genius, a modern-day priest of dance: Savion Glover. The show is Glover's last before beginning a six-week tour called "Improvography II," a blend of choreography for his new group, Chapter IV, and improvisation with The Otherz -- band leader Tommy James on piano, percussionist Brian Grice, double bassist Andy McCloud and Patience Higgens on saxophone and flute. His rangy body clad in gray slacks and a loose, black John Coltrane T-shirt, Glover taps through "The Stars & Stripes Forever (for Now)," his tribute to Coltrane's rendition of "My Favorite Things." Glover fires off a dazzling arsenal of steps, then lands a flat-footed stomp. Sweat flies from his beard, spraying the front row and splotching his pants as he spins and slides, thick dreads about to escape their loose coil atop his head. His long arms rock forward toward the audience, as if cradling a precious offering. His eyes are closed. His smile says it all. Glover is known for hitting the wood hard. Just sitting in the second row, you can feel the vibrations from his feet -- the impact ricochets up your sternum. But he never sacrifices clarity, and his specially miked platform stage faithfully broadcasts his complicated polyrhythms. Wherever he goes, it goes, with a team of sound engineers. "I've had people ask, can he dance on linoleum, is tile OK?" Glover's longtime manager, Carole Davis, said with a laugh during an afternoon sound check. "One time, someone even said to me, 'Can he dance on carpet?' It was like, can he dance on water?" Maybe in his next show. ------ A 1996 Tony Award for choreographing "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," Dance Magazine's "Choreographer of the Year" award, the Drama Desk Award, the Outer Circle Critics Award. Movie roles in Spike Lee's "Bamboozled" and Gregory Hines' "Tap." Broadway roles in "Tap Dance Kid," "Black and Blue" and "Jelly's Last Jam." Childhood sensation. "Sesame Street" cast member. White House guest. Clothing designer. A trademarked name. The list of 31-year-old Glover's accomplishments and honors goes on and on. But for Glover, it's all about what happens when he hits the wood. "I'm just a tap dancer, man," he says with characteristic understatement, speaking in an empty dance studio where he's been rehearsing. "I come from a long line of people who express themselves through the dance. I come from a long line of people who create music through their feet. I'm not doing anything new or different than what I've seen people do." Honi Coles, Bunny Briggs, Lon Chaney, Buster Brown -- Glover grew up with the greats, both on and off the stage. During his recent "Classical Savion" show at the Joyce Theater in New York, Glover kept a photograph of the late Hines on the piano, a tribute to the master who served both as tap mentor and father figure. Hines died in 2003 of cancer. Glover frequently pays homage to these men with his feet as well, referencing his aristocratic tap lineage while improvising with his band. "He is so influenced by these father figures, because he didn't grow up with a father, number one, but also because they wanted to give him whatever they had as the heir apparent," says tapper and writer Jane Goldberg. "I wish Gregory were alive, he would just be flipped out. He always talked about Glover being the greatest." Glover, who lives in New York City with his wife and infant son, grew up in Newark, N.J., the youngest of three boys raised by mother Yvette, a single parent. She gave Savion Suzuki drum lessons when he was 4. He entered New York's Broadway Dance Center when he was 7 and, three years later, in 1984, made his Broadway debut in the "Tap Dance Kid." Early finances were tricky, and his mother couldn't afford to buy him tap shoes. In his 2000 memoir, "Savion: My Life in Tap," written by Glover and Bruce Weber, he recalls going to tap lessons in "three-quarter length cowboy boots." But Yvette Glover, a fiercely proud and protective presence, always supported her son's passions. Today, she remains a near-constant -- and vocal -- booster at his shows. During a 2003 performance at the Joyce, she responded to one huffy audience member's hisses by exclaiming, "I'm not gonna shut up -- that's my baby!" As word spread of the young Glover's skills and he began performing in a series of Broadway shows, he found himself taken in by a whole new family, the "family of hoofers." Various older tappers aided in his upbringing: Dianne Walker became "Aunt Dianne," Chuck Green (who died in 1997) kept up a steady stream of advice, and Jimmy Slyde dubbed him "the sponge" because of Glover's insatiable tap appetite. And then there was Hines. "Hines was tremendously influential," said author and tap historian Constance Valis Hill. "He is the lynchpin, the unsung hero who brings the older generation of rhythm dancers forward and connects them to Savion." Though many of the older generation have since died, the connection remains strong. Referring to a recent Glover TV appearance that he missed, Slyde talked about his fellow tapper like a treasured grandson who can do no wrong. "I'm sure, if he was involved, it was wonderful," Slyde chuckled. "He's just a fantastic young man and I love him." Glover, in turn, takes very seriously his responsibility to youngsters such as 15-year- old Cartier Williams, currently touring with Glover. Williams calls it a privilege to dance with Glover and promises "to pass the torch down to the next generation, like he did for me." ------ It's a snowy, blustery night in New York, but inside the Joyce the atmosphere is electric as Glover, cool and elegant in a loose Armani suit, accepts the $10,000 Capezio Award. Flanked by a classical orchestra and his regular band mates, he flies through "The Stars & Stripes Forever (for Now)." It is an improvisational tour de force, jazz infused with snippets of Bartok and other classical composers. Red lights flood the stage. Months later, Glover explains in an interview that the work came to him after he learned he was going to be a father. "I had been listening to 'A Love Supreme' for years, but it wasn't until I was about to have my child. ... I did the same thing John Coltrane had done when his child was born. He just shut down, and out of his hibernation came 'A Love Supreme.' Out of my hibernation came 'Stars & Stripes Forever,'" Glover says. Glover, widely hailed for bringing tap into the world of hip hop, has been dubbed a hip-hop artist by "Noise/Funk" collaborator Reg. E Gaines, whose edgy script lent itself to the show's blistering interpretation of the black experience in America. From baggy clothes to street culture references, "Noise/Funk" viewed race and rhythm through a young, black, urban lens. But Glover, who laughingly refers to his hip-hop period as "the hardcore days," considers himself an artist who can work with any type of music. Tapper Jason Samuels Smith, a 24-year-old award-winning choreographer who performed in "Noise/Funk" for three years, and founded the annual LA Tap Festival, laments the ongoing characterization of his generation as "hip-hop tappers." He calls it an inaccurate and limiting identity cemented by the success of "Noise/Funk." "I think people expect dancers like myself or Savion to come out in baggy jeans and long dreads and put on a hip-hop tune or some type of funk," Smith says. "I don't think most people realize that most of us younger dancers have a certain knowledge of history, not only tap but musical -- especially jazz music -- and that we, as musicians and dancers, try to incorporate all of these genres within our art." Expectations, especially those of critics, have long bedeviled Glover and his peers; as recently as March, a New York Times review noted Glover's failure to "generate real coziness in a theatrical setting," without questioning if this was his aim. In sharp contrast to the smiling, crowd-pleasing presentation long associated with tap, many contemporary dancers do not court affection. Glover often turns his back on the audience and doesn't ham it up at curtain calls. He only smiles when he's feeling it and doesn't swing his arms in the casual rhythm of many past tappers; rather, his movement is explosive, arms striking out at all angles or tucked into his body as he works his way through delicate rhythms -- beautiful in its messiness. "When tap began, it wasn't about presentation," Smith says. "It was about communication, expression, innovation, celebration. It was about emotions, and emotion is not always pretty." "Savion is taking no prisoners," says Otherz band leader James, who has played with Glover for eight years. "He just goes out to kill, and that's his style." Tap historian Hill sees broader political implications in Glover's presentation, akin to the transition in jazz music from large, often white swing orchestras to bebop, with small groups of black musicians improvising difficult, "virtually undanceable" music. "This new generation of African-American dancers is taking tap back," she says. "Savion's saying, 'I am an improvising jazz musician -- can't my dancing be enough? Why should it have to entail a presentational aesthetic?'" Glover himself declines to elaborate on his style, clearly exasperated by the whole issue. "I've seen a dancer not even move from one spot and captivate a whole arena. I'm talking about one space, all the time, just doing rudiments," Glover says, rocking his feet rapidly back in forth to create soft rhythms. "His statement is, bam! 'This is where I'm going to be for the next 40 minutes. I'm going to be right here, and if you're going to join me, come on in. If not, go write something bad about it.' "That man still left the wood that night, went home, got a good night's sleep, got up the next day and went about his business as a tap dancer." Coziness aside, Glover creates an intense and joyous sense of community during his performances. He is hardly surly, calling out to friends in the audience, making fun of his average singing voice and even pulling little kids up on stage for brief jams. He aspires, he says, to be an all-around entertainer, following his mentors. For many, though, he is the one leading, with younger hoofers like Smith describing Glover as a "torch bearer" and bridge to the older generation of tappers. Where exactly Glover goes from here remains to be seen; he claims to be "sitting on something massive," a project with room for jazz, ballet, modern and tap. For now, though, he's keeping the details "in his pocket," waiting for the right moment. "I'm just striving to become," he laughs. "Once I become, I'll tell you why and how." ------ On the Net: Savion Glover: www.savionglover.com (c) 2005. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

Claudia La Rocco