Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Savion Glover-Zellerbach Hall

There were stomps, stamps, slams, and slaps; shuffles, scuffles, wings, and riffs; buffalos, toe stands, time steps, and cramp rolls. If you were at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley on September 22nd, you were fortunate enough to witness a performance that incorporated many of these basic elements of tap dance. However, if you were in attendance at Classical Savion that night, you know that the show you saw was anything but ordinary or basic. What you saw was astonishing; it was inventive; it was everything you would expect from musician/dancer/choreographer Savion Glover. The evening was a classical and contemporary musical interplay between a string orchestra, a jazz trio and an amazing pair of feet. When it comes to tap dancing, Savion Glover is truly astonishing-there are few who would argue with that statement. Therefore, rather than focus on a viewpoint that is largely unchallenged, additional aspects of the performance should be addressed. And, in a discussion of his interdisciplinary approach to music and dance, both positive and negative issues come to light.

On the positive side, the program clearly illustrated Savion Glover’s startling talent as a musician, conductor, and composer. The latter is a role he excels in but it is rarely discussed or acknowledged in the dance world. That should be remedied because he is really one of the great composers of our time. The early sections of the performance presented an intricate polyphonic relationship between Glover and the musicians; a rhythmic examination of famous classical repertoire, including Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. There were times when the dancing and the music matched, and Glover’s percussive feet were working in the same metrical structure as the melody of the piece. Then, within the same piece, there would be other occasions when Glover purposely explored contradicting metered lines, juxtaposing syncopated jazz tap sequences against the structured backdrop of Baroque, Classical and Romantic music compositions. His ability to examine the different musical combinations between his percussive taps and the orchestrations resulted in one of the most complex fugal patterns imaginable. He took multiple independent voicings and integrated them in such a way that each one remained as important as the others-that is the textbook definition of a fugue. Nothing was musically subordinate or inferior-every line was of equal significance. Wherever they are, I could imagine Mozart, Bach, and Haydn also watching the performance that night and commenting on how they wish they had come up with the composition that was presented-the first two segments were that good.

The only disappointing portion of Classical Savion was the third and final section, in which Glover introduced each member of the orchestra and the jazz artists, and then proceeded to perform an improvised duet with each individual. He was not the only one that was improvising. During this long segment, each of the musicians improvised on their respective instruments while Glover offered an unrehearsed tap counterpart along with them. This type of exhibition is currently referred to as “improvography”. Improvography is a hybrid of improvisation and choreography, and is clearly a ‘made-up’ term that was first coined by the late tap legend Gregory Hines. According to the May 2004 issue of Dance Magazine, improvography has two elements, allowing dancers and choreographers to, “…embrace both the highly structured compositional nature and the improvisatory freedom of certain kinds of jazz/rhythm tap.” (42) While Glover is without a doubt an extraordinary musician and dancer, he is not successful at trying to apply Hines’ vision of improvography to his work. He certainly has the spontaneous, unplanned component down pat-no question. But, he does not give adequate attention to the other part-the parameters and the compositional elements that are also required for something to be improvography. Glover is not really using improvography as it was intended; he is using it to re-define improvisation. Unfortunately, re-naming something doesn’t change what it is. And, improvisation is self-indulgent playtime for performers. For the audience, it is a tedious and often insulting display that feels like you are watching performers rehearse, not perform. It is certainly fun for the participants, but not for the audience, which was made abundantly clear as some of the audience was not willing to sit through it. Improvisation has its place in dance and music, but the sad truth is that some artists have come to believe that it belongs in a presentational forum. It is a developmental tool, and that’s how it should remain-in the arsenal of work done in the studio, expanding choreography, and preparing for performance.

Conceptually, perhaps it would have been better to have the experimental improvography in the middle of the performance so that it could have been sandwiched in between two more powerful and clearly defined sections. The first two thirds of the show were so compelling that their strength may have exaggerated the weakness and ambiguity of the improvography portion. It seems as though the piece may simply need some more time to develop, reorganize and unify as one solid body of work if it is to be presented as one single production.

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