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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