“For The Love of Tap” epitomizes Chicago Tap Theatre’s return to live performance at the Athenaeum Theatre this Saturday, February 19th. Throughout the pandemic, that love has sustained the company, its dancers, its students, and the community at large with initiatives that have harvested unexpected blessings from dire circumstances.
“Getting to do this show is our love letter to tap dance,” said CTT founding artistic director Mark Yonally in a recent phone chat with SeeChicagoDance. “‘For The Love of Tap’ has been a constant and sustaining force throughout the pandemic,” he added.
It’s fitting that the company celebrates its 19th anniversary season, and its return to live performance, at the Athenaeum Theatre, the cite of the company’s very first show, titled, “The Blue Show.” During the past nineteen years, tap dance has come into its own as a concert dance genre. Under Yonally’s direction, Chicago Tap Theatre’s unique contribution to that process has been to further the creative collaboration of musicians, tap dancers and, quite frequently, scripted narrative theatre. CTT has pioneered the tap dance equivalent of the story ballet, complete with full-length, scripted theatre, sets, and props. Dialog between characters in dramatic scenes is accomplished through the nuanced sounds the dancers make with their feet, literally walking the talk, while an on-stage storyteller fills in the narrative through-line.
Music, much of it original compositions by the instrumentalists in collaboration with the choreographers, is performed live by an on stage band, who have been known to interact with the dancers when called upon, singing, fiddling, and drumming their way into the choreography.
With Chicago Tap Theatre, music is never an accompaniment to the choreography, but rather an essential partner in the overall sound and visual design of a piece. A trained musician himself, Yonally is especially keen on drawing out complex rhythm patterns that alter our experience of both the music and movement with an inspired integration of visceral, visual, and auditory experience. This season exemplifies that, with a program that combines new work with audience favorites from past seasons.
“We wanted this season to have an internal theme,” directing the company’s focus on “artist investment.” Yonally made a commitment to give the dancers an opportunity “to further develop themselves as artists.” To that end, he set up time in October and January for intensive exploration and fine-tuning of their technique.
Highlights of the program include Yonally’s “Moonlight” (2012), set to the music of Beethoven and Glen Miller, “Le Disko,” his response to the Covid pandemic, and an improvised solo. Long- time on-stage collaborator, Marc Kelly Smith, of Poetry Slam fame, joins Yonally with a selection of poetry that Yoanlly is sure will make something magical happen.
The first live performance of company member Sterling Harris’s “Alfonso Muskedunder” (2021) is “super kinetic” and “rhythmically rich,” according to Yonally, with 7/4 rhythms by composer Todd Terje.
Yonally wanted this concert to provide opportunities for younger choreographers to present their work, including company members Harris and Molly Smith, and guest choreographer Star Dixon of M.A.D.D. Rhythm tap dance company.
Chicago Tap Theatre commissioned tap dancer/choreographer Dixon to set a new work on the company. The collaboration of M.A.D.D. Rhythm’s Dixon with Chicago Tap Theatre brings north and south sides of the city together. “It’s a privilege working with an artist at the level she’s working,” Yonally said. The music, “Tin Tin Deo,” by Dizzy Gillespie, is a cross between Bebop and Latin jazz. “It’s a pure example of taking music and making it visual,” Yonally said, describing Dixon as “on the young side for artist of such stature. You always know rhythmically what her intentions are.”
Fourteen years ago, CTT received a grant for tap dance grande dame, author, musician, composer, and artist Brenda Bufalino, now in her eighties and still dancing, to set her masterpiece, "Flying Turtles" (1986) on the company. One of Yonally’s most influential artistic mentors, she returned to Chicago for a week this past November to re-set the company's revival of the piece. Buffalino co-wrote the music with Darrell Grant to support the choreography. In its original performances at the Athenaeum Theatre, she played the conga drum on stage herself.
“This piece encapsulates what defines Brenda’s work,” Yonally said. Frequently drawing from nature, Buffalino, observing sea turtles, thought they looked like they were flying. As the program closer, “this piece always brings the house down,” Yonally said. “It’s such an honor to perform a work…. to the specifics of the choreography, and to know you’re doing it exactly as the choreographer wants it to be done. I want to make sure masterworks like this don’t disappear.” Fourteen dancers, including Yonally and former company members Kirsten Uttich and Isaac Staumffer, perform the nine-minute piece. Multiple polyrhythms, sometimes as many as seven at one time, and different phrase lengths create electrifying stage energy. As the program closer, “this piece always brings down the house,” Yonally said.
“We’ve kept the program short,” Yonally added, “running one hour and twenty minutes including intermission.” He hopes to give audiences a top-notch, engaging, high energy experience that surprises and delights, and gets the audience out safely.
There will be no concessions. Vax cards will be checked at the door, and masking is mandatory. For those not yet ready to venture into a theatre for a live performance, the program will be broadcast at 7 PM CST on March 4 and available on demand through March 13.
Chicago Tap Theatre performs For the Love of Tap Saturday, February 19 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 North Southport. Tickets are $24-$65 and available online at athenaeumcenter.org. For more details, click the event page below.