For me, eccentrics define tap dance. Everything starts from the individual, just as it does in free jazz: soloists flow out of and return to the ensemble. When I watch tap, I live for the solos, learn to love each dancer, then watch the chemistry ignite and evolve between all members of the group.
Now celebrating its 29th season of tap classes and concerts, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s “JUBA!” portion of Rhythm World—running through Saturday at the Dance Center of Columbia College, the final venue for the festival—on Thursday offered two takes on solo versus ensemble tap: one by Jason Janas’ Co.MMIT, based in LA, and the other by CHRP’s resident ensemble, Stone Soup Rhythms, in choreography by artist in residence Dani Borak. The difference between them being more a matter of emphasis, of course: does solo work play an important or more subordinate role?
CHRP itself is celebrating its 30th year: it started when artistic director Lane Alexander joined modern dancer Kelly Michaels to form the two-man group they called Alexander-Michaels/Future Movement (now CHRP). Watching them perform at Mundelein College in 1989, I was struck by their mutual playfulness—and by their fully acknowledged and exploited differences: Alexander’s upright rectitude, his precision, and Michaels’ lyricism, whimsicality. Tragically, Michaels died of AIDS six years later. Though left behind, Alexander has persevered and prospered, expanding the range of “Rhythm World” exponentially. He dedicates this year’s show to his former partner, a gentle, good-natured, funny man.
Janas’ “Essentials”—a world premiere—alternates solos with ensemble dancing in eight sections, the first of them danced by Janas himself. I was happy to see that, though more grizzled, he’s lost none of the energy and wonderfully eccentric scarecrow awkwardness he had in 2010, when I first saw him perform. The premise of this quintet is that tap dance offers healing, community, peace. The sparse notes of the music are limited to recorded and live playing of a metal handpan drum.
Something of a rite, a ceremony, “Essentials” opens with the dancers in hooded black robes, looking like monks, wizards. While four of them are seated around the onstage handpan drum, looking down introspectively, Janas enters alone for the first section, a solo called “Cleansing,” staggering into a wide-legged flurry of rapid tapping, arms flailing, set to the counterpoint of the drum’s slow, intermittent “gong.” In the largely silent group section that follows, Janas himself ends up face-down at the lip of the stage. This is a man who takes risks, who likes a bit of danger.
The three solos that follow, interspersed with ensemble sections, allow us to see three more Co.MMIT dancers in all their eccentric glory. Michelle May—a light, quick, delicate presence—fills the empty spaces between “gongs” with rapid tapping, like breathing. She sometimes seems to skip. Shawn Kurilko is an energizing force as the piece comes to a close: he taps fast and hard, turns in a tight circle, an engine whirling, fully absorbed in his task. Janas watches all the soloists appreciatively, chin on fist, suggesting Co.MMIT is a community, all for one, one for all. United under the rubric of Janas’ ideas about tap, the structure he’s created for this dance.
CHRP’s Stone Soup closes the program with fourteen short pieces over the show’s final hour, the last three of them—Borak’s “Alien”/Rytme”/“Fusion”. A protean talent, Borak shows his stuff in a range of moods and music, everything from Outkast (in old-school mode) to blues-rock group Alabama Shakes to Prince, Dave Brubeck and hip-hop artist Tech N9Ne. It was a head-spinning mix, a melange that does not do justice to the dancers or the choreography. The many pieces blend together, the dancers seem interchangeable. The result resembles a tap orchestra, a concept initiated in 1986 by Brenda Bufalino that has never made sense to me. The dancers come to seem cogs in a machine, not individuals.
As Borak explains in a mini-intermission voiceover before “Alien”/“Rytme”/“Fusion” begins, the first eleven pieces represent all the work he’s created for CHRP’s “Stomping Grounds” series. Ten of them are group works, whose few scattered solos are what I remember best. Only one was a stand-alone: Borak’s “Escualo.” We got to focus on him, doing his thing. And a very good thing it was. Right away he sets up a synergistic relationship to the complex rhythms of the music, by Astor Piazzolla and Cinzia Merlin, adding to them, complementing them, in immensely satisfying ways. He takes risks, rising to the toes of both feet and staying there, going off-kilter. He shows off unusual steps, banging a heel down and holding it for a second, then slapping down the toe, over and over in a steady militaristic march played for laughs.
Of the final three works, the last of them, “Fusion,” is the most experimental, an unusual take on what tap can be and do. Here Borak plays with some of the building blocks of ballet/modern, like second-position plies that suddenly turn in. The floor work includes tapping while lying on one’s back. Toward the end, a dancer in a white unitard, Sam Crouch, bursts onto the scene, a ghostly figure performing high-end modern dance in the midst of the eight Stone Soup ensemble members, in black. In the endless genealogy of tap dance, Borak seems to hand down Alexander’s memory of his partner, Michaels, to posterity.
JUBA! continues through Saturday at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $15-$75, available by clicking the event page below