Tapping robots find their humanity in Pink Floyd with Tristan Bruns’s ‘What it’s Like to be Human’

Talk to any tap dancer raised in Chicago, and the names Lane Alexander, Martin ‘Tre’ Dumas, Bril Barrett and Julie Cartier are likely to come up. These are the pillars of Chicago’s prolific tap scene, and tapper Tristan Bruns has trained with them all. 

A founding member of Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP)’s BAM! and a current member of Barrett’s M.A.D.D. Rhythms, the influence of Alexander – who founded CHRP 30 years ago – and Barrett are crystal clear in Bruns’ dancing, which is a debonair mix of cutting-edge, experimental tap and classy, old-fashioned hoofing.

Bruns’s choreography, which is housed under the moniker of Tapman Productions, often attempts to blend principles of hip hop and modern dance with tap. In so doing, he aims to weave themes or stories through each work and offer more than rhythmic showmanship. His latest project, “What it’s Like to be Human,” follows suit, presented Thursday and Friday as a work in progress at Links Hall.

It’s part of a weekend of tap at the venue, which has not to this critic’s knowledge presented much, if any, tapping on account of its pristine dance floors. But a well-loved tap floor installed on top of Links’s signature maple planks makes it quite a pleasant place to watch hoofers – you’re close enough to see their feet, the acoustics are pretty good, and the bar is always open.

“What it’s Like to be Human" is a swift half hour of dancing by performers Rachel Benzing, Jessica Tenbusch and Kaytlin Bush, who first appear in emotionless masks as tapping automatons going through the motions of life. The music, a mix of the NYC-based Indie band Darwin Deez, Pink Floyd, and sounds of the CTA (“This is Chicago” and “Doors closing,” presumably recorded on the Red Line), find these robot-like ladies going through routine daily tasks: waking, commuting, and working. 

It’s not just the masks that intentionally suck the life from these actions. There is literal robot dancing, but also more subtle pokes at the mechanization of life as the trio marches straight-edged patterns across the stage, tapping with arms glued to their sides like Irish dancers. Every so often, the dancers’ feet deviate from a regimented 4/4 common time signature with a few syncopated flourishes, which I found especially compelling in the piece’s few a cappella moments.

Having donned blazers, in black matte, glossy black and gold lame, the trio’s masks stay on for a sassy big band number complete with Charlestons, heel clicks and travelling flaps with fingers outstretched from the hips. If one remembers these women, presumably, can’t see their feet in those masks, it becomes even more impressive, but it’s unsettling to watch such a fun number performed devoid of any expression whatsoever. I think the idea is to point out that even these exuberant moments in life, which can and often do carry immense joy, can become routine and regimented – particularly among dancers, whose work is designed around the leisure time of others.

The masks come off for a quartet of musical selections by Pink Floyd, all from the iconic “Dark Side of the Moon.” The rhythmic base provided by “On the Run,” “Time,” “The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Breathe” are quite a brilliant accompaniment for tapping, so long as Bruns is aware that anyone familiar with the tracks, which is probably most people, is going to bring their own personal stories around it to how they watch this dance.

Maybe that’s his objective: As a beam of cool light shines on the backs of each dancer, one by one, each performs a markedly individualized solo playing to the strengths of these women – who, by the way, are some of our fair city’s strongest from among the tap field. It’s as though these newly formed humans, having shed their robot personas, must get to know and love themselves before coming together to know one another. And for me, that makes the Pink Floyd OK, remembering those solitary moments in my room with my Discman, listening to “Dark Side of the Moon” and pondering life and the world around me.

And when they do come together, it starts with paradiddles to the pulse of Floyd’s “Time,” and then evolves into a ridiculously challenging unison tap phrase, made only more difficult when it breaks into a canon. They then repeat the beginning – waking, commuting and that sassy Broadway number – which, while I’m not sure this is totally necessary, is nonetheless satisfying to see the fantastic smiles of those previously hidden faces.


"What it's Like to be Human" was presented as part of the Stomping Grounds Festival, presented by Chicago Human Rhythm Project. The festival continues through May 31, and includes a performance by M.A.D.D. Rhythms at Links Hall, 3111 N. Western Ave. For a full festival line-up, tickets and more information, click the organization pages below.