Tapping into Tradition

Savion Glover Returns to the Lobero

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

He’s a black man from Newark with dreadlocks and street-savvy style who tap dances to Vivaldi. Savion Glover isn’t the kind of contemporary artist who has to work to earn street cred; he’s already hip. This is a guy who turns up in Notorious BIG’s lyrics and Puff Daddy’s music videos one minute, and on Sesame Street and at the White House the next. It has to be a truly unusual talent that appeals to such diverse groups, and unusual is exactly how Savion (pronounced “Save·ee·on”) Glover sees his work. In 1997, he created dance company NYOTs (Not Your Ordinary Tappers), gathering to his side other tap-dance legends and rhythm dance artists who complemented his unique style. For the most part, though, he’s known for his work as a solo artist, and he can hold Carnegie Hall captive all on his own. Glover grew up on the stage as much as on the street. He hit Broadway at age 10, although it wasn’t until 1996 that he achieved solo stardom with his lead role in the George C. Wolfe musical Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk — a musical history lesson on how African-American dance evolved as a form of expression in the face of oppression. The show was on Broadway for three years, but Glover left in ’97, his traveling tap shoes carrying him to star in Spike Lee’s satirical film Bamboozled, choreograph a primetime TV advertisement for Nike, and win a slew of awards for his choreography and performance, including a Tony. Glover was last at the Lobero in 2003 for a sold-out show featuring his celebrated jazz quartet; he returns this Sunday with a new twist on mixed genres: in Classical Savion, he takes on Bach, Bartók, and Mendelssohn. “I’m meeting classical music through the dance,” he told me last week, speaking from Oregon where the show is currently on tour. “I’m allowing people to understand that what I do is actually music.”

“My approach is an attempt to conquer this music through the dance,” Glover recently told the New York Times. This concept of a face-off between classical music and the rhythms laid down by a live tap dancer is reminiscent of b-boy culture, in which dancers compete in elaborate battles to see who’s got the skills. For Glover, the challenger in this battle is classical music itself, and Classical Savion is his attempt to find his rhythmic place in music that’s as far from 21st century urban culture as it gets. However, as tap dancers and critics have noted in the past, classical music competes less directly with tap than jazz does. The more consistent beats in classical music allow the dancer freedom to improvise in syncopation with the existing rhythmic structure. If you’ve never heard funk beats layered over Vivaldi, this is your chance. Ultimately, Glover’s is a dance between traditions that attempts to tap out a place of its own. Dance as an art form, and popular dance styles like tap and hip-hop in particular, have always come stamped with the pop-culture label, rarely finding a footing alongside the so-called fine and high arts like opera and ballet. “I’m on a mission,” said Glover a few years ago. “Tap should be respected, like opera at Carnegie Hall.” Elevating tap to high-art status is a calling he continues to pursue with a unique brand of style and energy that has come to define modern tap. “I see myself as one of the leaders on the forefront trying to advance the art form, ensuring that tap dance isn’t seen as a dead art,” he said last week. He sometimes refers to his performance of a score as “playing” the music. “I don’t find a big difference between playing ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’ and The Four Seasons,” he confided. “It’s still music — it’s all music to me.”

In using his furious footwork to explode the boundary separating high from low art, Glover is subverting classical culture and embracing it as his own. Classical Savion is proof he’s not your ordinary artist.

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