March 29, 2001

Jazz Revolution

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Entwining two great artistic forms, the Jazz Tap Ensemble has been revolutionizing tap dance in a way that has been bringing an entirely new genre of expression to the concert stage. Using minimal scenery and simple lighting, the essence of the Jazz Tap Ensemble lays in its exceptional talent and visionary ideas that have been forming since its creation 21 years ago.

This production, performed at the Proscenium Theater at the Cornell Center for Theater Arts this past Tuesday and Wednesday, was an eye-opening experience for the audience. While many people are familiar with tap dancing in a Broadway sense, the Jazz Tap Ensemble introduces an infusion of jazz that modernizes the standardized form of tap.

Directed by Lynn Dally, the Jazz Tap Ensemble is comprised of four dancers, including Sam Weber, Becky Twitchell, Channing Cook Holmes, and the director herself. As integral components of the company, the musicians are crucial to the Ensemble’s jazz-inspired backbone. With Jerry Kalaf on the drums, Doug Walter on the piano and saxophone, and Kirk Smith on bass, the musical accompaniment becomes as compelling as the dance itself.

A “tribute to the masters,” this integration of dance and music, tap and jazz, was divided into two acts. Dispersed throughout the program were dedications to tap masters, Eddie Brown, Harold Nicholas, and Gregory Hines. Choreographed by Gregory Hines (the most contemporary of those being revered), the piece “Groove” evidenced the most modern of those tribute tap numbers. With more beat and movement, the smooth jazzy rhythms of previous selections were elevated to a new stylistic level, with more jive and gyration.

Created especially for the Jazz Tap Ensemble by veteran tap master Jimmy Slyde, the final piece in the performance can be considered a type of microcosm for the entire show. Entitled “Interface,” the number depicted, as Lynn Dally described in her introduction, the nature of coming and going, as well as the general motifs that each dancer provided throughout the Ensemble’s presentation. Comprised of solo sections and group arrangements, the entire number always reconvened with a familiar beat.

Accordingly, as each dancer had a solo part in “Interface,” he or she remained true to his or her eminent personality. Thus, as Sam Weber continued the incredible fancy footwork that characterized his earlier solo numbers (“Ariel” and “Bailin'”), Lynn Dally maintained the lyrical quality of her movements, which had a distinct flair stemming from her background in modern dance. Like her previous number, “Blue Skies” (the only piece to feature Doug Walter on the saxophone, playing music by Irving Berlin), Lynn’s performance displayed an almost dramatic evolution.

The musical accompaniments for many of the numbers were original pieces by Jerry Kalaf. In addition, the band was allotted its own time to shine without the dancers in both acts. As is the nature of the company, the instruments of music and the instrument of the body are tools that inextricably require the use of one another. Nowhere else is this as evident as in “Seven,” a piece choreographed and improvised by dancer Channing Cook Holmes and musician Jerry Kalaf.

On a stage of minimal scenery, the color of the backdrop and the color of the dancers’ appropriately simple costumes helped to create a mood for each piece. For instance, the red backdrop of “Groove” prompted the mind to think bold, vibrant, and vivacious, while the blue backdrop of “Blue Skies” prompted a mellow, soft, and subdued vibe. Thus, while the dancers’ rhythmic choices provided a sense of emotional accompaniment to their selections, the visual stimulants enhanced these reactions.

Between the numbers, Sam Weber would enter and exit the stage as a clown to comically “introduce” the band. Light and amusing, the presence of the clown not only added moments of comic relief to the production, but it congealed the show in a way that gave it added personality.

Displaying measures of individuality, creativity, and, of course, immense talent, the Jazz Tap Ensemble brought a revolution to the Cornell stage. With interaction between the dancers and the musicians, between tap and jazz, an “interface” was borne upon which the company as a whole performed in a wonderfully synchronized fashion. A performance is only as good as the way the dancers feel about their creation and the way that they work together. Thus, with the perceived connection between all elements of the Ensemble, the performance can be described on a level that surpasses just “good” — it reached a level of sheer brilliance.

Archived article by Barbara Seigel