An audience made up mostly of families with children, young couples, and seniors gathered at the Brooklyn Center for Performing Arts on Saturday, November 2nd for a one-night-only engagement of STePZ. The production, which kicked off the Center’s 2013-2014 season, was directed, choreographed, and performed by internationally renowned tap dancer Savion Glover.Mr. Glover was joined by dancers Marshall Davis Jr., Robyn Watson, Ayodele Casel, and Sarah Savelli.
Except for a raised wooden floor and two sets of wooden, pyramid-shaped staircases, the stage was unadorned, which set a straightforward tone for the evening. STePZ was about rhythm and movement…and that’s it. Typically, I find a no-frills approach like this preferable to the other extreme (gratuitous use of special effects and embellishments). Nevertheless, I would have enjoyed this stark set even more had it been used in more than just a few sections in the program. Most of the dancing took place in the center wood floor, which struck me as a waste of two, unoccupied staircases. STePZ’s ultra-basic environment also made it difficult to ignore some recurring technical issues, including sound balance problems and inconsistent floor microphone volumes.
I had only seen Glover perform once years ago and I couldn’t remember much of the experience, so I wasn’t sure what to expect this time. From the moment he careened onto the stage, my eyes were immediately drawn to his legs —skinnier than I expected!— which moved like two live wires shooting energy into the surrounding space. He had remarkable command of his body, be it recklessly bounding backwards down a staircase or making sound incognito with only a tiny movement of his right foot.
Glover didn’t absorb well into a group. This was particularly apparent in the ensemble sections of STePZ, which were almost exclusively executed in frontal, staggered lines. (The last movement patterns in the final piece, STEVIE DELICIOUS, were an important exception to this rule as they were creative and memorable.) Glover consistently danced off to the side of the group, unaware of or unconcerned with his spatial relationship to others and its overall visual impact.
Still, Glover seemed to enjoy dancing with the others, especially Marshall Davis Jr. in MELODY’SIZIN. This convivial, a capella duet was an especially dynamic section of the program during which Glover and Davis Jr. executed rhythmic and increasingly daring feats on the two sets of stairs located upstage. It was fun, if not also a bit unnerving, to watch the gutsy athleticism on display.
I noticed that Watson, Casel, and Savelli—all skilled and accomplished technicians and performers—mostly danced in ensemble sections of the program and only performed briefly as soloists. They were featured as a trio in BUGLE CALL RAG but, for someone like me who lacks a trained eye for tap technique, this section along with others appeared less demanding than the mens’. This struck me as odd, since the women were obviously strong and very capable dancers.
After speaking with Glover about SHASTA during our interview last week, I probably watched this piece extra-carefully. Early on, the dancers left behind the tap vocabulary and began to mimic ballet dancers with a slapstick approach—sloppy pirouettes en de hors, pirouette preparations followed by the rapid finger rotation dancers sometimes do to mark turns, and Glover holding a masquerade mask and sashaying across the stage. Then, there was a shift. Suddenly the dancers tapped with a regal carriage of the upper body and in formations like those of a corps de ballet. Then again, Glover executed one, suspended pirouette en de hors and landed facing the audience in a vague fourth position lunge, his face like a deer in headlights. In the end, I’m not sure what SHASTA was—a joke? An experiment?
During one duet with Davis, Jr., Glover stopped and yelled out “He stole that step…but, I stole everything I’m doing!” This moment was the only point in the program that seemed like an effort toward increasing audience awareness of tap, tap history, and tap of the future—an undertaking Glover has explicitly committed to. I imagine tap history references were made throughout STePZ, but I had no way of knowing what to look for in hopes of gleaning some knowledge from the production. Without a program note or overt cues through wardrobe, music, or movement choices, STePZ came across as a composition made up of insider references that only insiders would grasp—not a good move if the goal is raising awareness.