“Tap dance is alive and kicking,” Tony Waag, the director of the New York City Tap Festival, said at Symphony Space on Thursday. “So much is going on, so much of it right here on this stage.”
The first part of Mr. Waag’s pronouncement is, fortunately, accurate. Though institutionally poor and scrappy enough to still feel a regular need to broadcast its own vital signs, the great American art of tap is nowhere near moribund. What was on the Symphony Space stage, alas, was not the best indicator of the form’s health.
The festival, which closes Friday and is also called Tap City, is now in its 19th year. The Symphony Space program was the latest installment of “Rhythm in Motion,” an annual showcase for an essential incubator of tap choreography that the stalwart Mr. Waag started in 2013. It was unique back then, and, at least in New York, it still is.
Like most samplers, “Rhythm in Motion” has always been a mixed bag, its revelations and breakthroughs jumbled with misfires and mediocrity. Because the tap community is small, its finest artists commonly share programs with much less talented and developed compatriots, and in any one sampling the presence or absence of just a few people can tip the balance.
This year’s show was very close to a student recital or amateur hour. There were many ensemble numbers to recorded music, herd-like in sound and visually bland. Some choreographers had ideas — let’s cross tap with Bollywoodized Bharatanatyam; how about a mirrored duet of friendship? — but the efforts were misguided or fledgling, with almost no sense of outside guidance or direction, no discriminating eye or ear. The whole program was very nearly a case of the best lacking all conviction while the worst showed off.
Of the 14 numbers, there were only two I truly enjoyed. They came, tellingly, at the end. The first was “Ser Humano” by the festival regular Max Pollak. An Austrian-born American citizen who has crossed tap with Afro-Cuban forms, he presented his own musical composition with a small group of dancer-musicians and a rhythm section. What set this apart wasn’t the sentiment — asserting the common humanity of immigrants — but the musical sense, missing from most of the preceding numbers’ effortful noise.
Even better was “Partido,” by the Brazilian-born Leonardo Sandoval. This, too, was an original composition (by Mr. Sandoval and Gregory Richardson), played by live musicians. It, too, made musical sense, switching between an accumulating polyrhythmic groove and a contrastive section of light, quick mystery. Mr. Sandoval and his five dancers shared a loose athletic grace. They looked like pros.
I only wish there had been more of Mr. Sandoval. Over all, there was an odd sense of the best shying away from their own star power. In the final performance, the suave Lisa La Touche, who also choreographed the number, was off to one side of a huge group, her charisma lost in the crowd, all those massed feet blasting her sophisticated rhythms as if through a loud, cheap speaker.
It was possible to get a little more of Ms. La Touche at an earlier Tap City event, “Tap Ellington,” at the Birdland Jazz Club on Sunday Mr. Pollak was there, too, but the main excitement was the house band, the Duke Ellington Center Big Band, playing all Ellington compositions. Every other number was a band feature — a frustrating choice since so many of the tunes called out to be danced. Yet most frustrating of all, besides poor sightlines, was the shamelessly slapdash, self-indulgent hosting by Mr. Waag and Mercedes Ellington. It should be good news for tap that this event is to become monthly, but only if standards are raised.
The good news, in fact, is that standards are higher elsewhere. From June 27 to 29, at Dizzy’s Club, the tap dancer Brinae Ali and the trumpeter Sean Jones presented “Dizzy Spellz,” a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie. An early excerpt from the show was a highlight of last year’s “Rhythm in Motion.” It now has an independent life, and the late set I caught on opening night was a blast.
Dancing on a small wooden platform, Ms. Ali, also known as Alexandria Bradley, was a bigger and more boisterous presence than anyone performing at Tap City this year. At the same time, though, she was completely in sync with a superb jazz quartet augmented by the inventive turntablist Wendel Patrick. This was a concert bursting with love, a reminder that the openhearted spirit Tap City often espouses is not incompatible with excellence.
It was a reminder, too, that the festival, as crucial as it remains, isn’t the only game in town. (Or in the country. The Chicago Human Rhythm Project is currently celebrating its 30th season.) Savion Glover, still the most famous hoofer, was recently back in New York — killing it in spare, improvisational sets at the Blue Note in late July and helming an absurd, embarrassingly ill-conceived show at the Joyce Theater last week.
[Savion Glover explains how he’s still searching.]
Mr. Glover has appeared at the Joyce many times before, but the prevalence of tap in the upcoming fall season there is highly unusual, if not unprecedented — the best news in New York tap this year. In September, we’ll get Ayodele Casel, and in December, a double whammy of Dorrance Dance and “And Still You Must Swing,” an extraordinary show by Dormeshia (formerly credited as Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards), Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith. Altogether, that’s an amazing collection of the midcareer tap masters missing from Tap City. If they’ve graduated to larger and more prestigious stages, that’s a loss for the festival, but a truly encouraging sign of health for the art.
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