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Thursday, Aug. 14, 2014

Danceworks’ Global Spin on Tap Dancing

‘Tap the Map’ concert was thoughtful and fun

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Looking for new ideas, tap dance choreographers sometimes succumb to gimmickry. Danceworks on Tap avoided that nicely in Tap the Map, a new concert performed at the Danceworks Studio last weekend. The ensemble of dancers, choreographers and educators set American tap dance steps to music from other countries. What could have been cheesy, not to say imperialist, was thoughtful, generous and great fun.

The nine women in the company, well-mixed in age, body type and stage persona, are fine tap dancers able to execute complicated combinations in flawless unison over long stretches; break into small groups in call-and-response patterns; or light up the stage in trios, duets and brief solos. What they mercifully lack in Busby Berkeley glamour they more than make up for in skillfulness.

As a hilarious curtain raiser, two dancers played stewardesses preparing the audience for takeoff in pantomime to a recorded voice. With no mention of cellphones, they pointed out the emergency exits, demonstrated how to turn a doorknob and cautioned us, should panic arise, to take deep breaths ourselves (we practiced) before assisting others. Our carry-ons were safely stowed beneath our seats.

Next, we watched the first of several entertaining video sequences from Pulse: A STOMP Odyssey, a “tour” of African, Asian and Native American dance (and, later, a spectacular flamenco) executed against silence or traditional instruments.

Then the lights came up on three pairs of bare feet and legs: a black curtain held thigh-high across the stage hid bodies, arms and faces. To water drumming (people slapping water), the dancers playfully explored possibilities for rhythmic stepping. As toes and heels became the prominent instruments, four tap-shoed dancers gradually replaced the originators. They executed traditional tap steps cleanly and at speed; no faking; no grinning faces or sensuous bodies to draw attention from the challenging footwork. Unlike the stewardesses, this sequence actually told us how to watch the show by making us acutely conscious of the brain-foot connection.

Eventually, guest tapper Lamont Johnson, in suit, vest, hat and dark glasses, gave us every loveable step in the classic tap dictionary during his moving solo Nostalgic Man. Guest Laura Kolar did a barefoot African dance, unexpected and touching. The evening’s coup de theatre was a traditional Lion Dance in glorious full costume by the Phi Long Lion Dancers of Milwaukee. The DOT choreographers were Artistic Director Amy Brinkman-Sustache and dancers Annette Grefig, Rachel Payden and Tina Wozniak.