Sunday, November 13, 2011

SoLe Sanctuary: Hoofers' Last Hurrah

By Susan Kepecs
Thursday night Savion Glover brought to the Union Theater those famously brilliant bebop feet, plus his dance partner Marshall Davis, to pay homage to the 20th century’s master hoofers, all of whom have gone to their great reward.  Posters – Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Slyde, Gregory Hines – flew from the battens, signaling their spiritual presence.  A woman meditated on a small platform upstage right, as if offering a prayer to the departed deities.
Glover and Davis have highly individual styles.  Both like to dance with their eyes shut, feelin’ the groove. But Davis tends to hold his upper body still, arms stretched straight, fists curled, though his legs are loose.  Davis rides his beats; Glover doesn’t so much ride as fly.  He whirls, playing air drums; he swaps feet, engages his hips, pops his knees.  His hands reach out, out, palms up, in the universal “from the heart” gesture.
In SoLe Sanctuary the two hoofed routines in perfect unison. These morphed into long, improvised solos, or the two traded eights, riffing on a theme. They faced each other, grinning; one started a beat, the other picked it up,.  They jumped, clapped and spun as one.  They did call and response, Glover sending out a beat with his right leg, Davis answering with his left.  Glover often took the lead, Davis supplying counterrhythms upstage.
Most of the show was straight up percussion, sans accompaniment. Glover and Davis danced on a small wooden platform, playing the hollow floor with all facets of their feet the way congueros play their skins with every part of their hands. This pyrotechnical footwork is rhythmically rich, the moves visually arresting.  But nearly two hours of pure percussion, much of it at lightening speed, at times felt relentless – moreso than the more tuneful (though also unaccompanied) Bare Soundz, which Glover performed here in ’08.  More than once Thursday night I felt relief when the driving beat was broken with a slower step. 
The pure percussion mode, showcased on the platform's restricted space (something Glover used to do with Gregory Hines, the link back to the original tap dance kings), reveals the remarkable range of the artform, accentuates the artists’ sheer virtuosity, and adds a younger, tech-oriented edge to an old artform. But the original jazzy, jivey, joyful hoofers ate up space, and most often used accompaniment of some sort.  There are hundreds of YouTube videos you can watch to see what I mean – but here's one with most of the grand old men (introduced by Hines), for a point of comparison. I think this was taped in 1989:

In both Bare Soundz and SoLe Sanctuary I missed those expansive moves across the stage, though the hollow box makes it easier to pick up all the small variations those shoes, on the right feet, can create.  And while the wow factor in SoLe Sanctuary was constant, the show was at its most soulful during those interludes in which other sounds slipped in.  At one point Glover, ecstatic and sweating, laid a soft, off-key vocal renditon of Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now” over his steps. Tapping quietly, he scatted around the Gil Scott Heron lyric “no matter how far you’ve gone, you can always turn around.” And finally, dancing to John Coltrane’s “Resolution,” the second track on Love Supreme, Glover and Davis blew the lid off the show, flying easy, spinning, playing off each others’ steps. Davis swung by himself to McCoy Tyner’s cascading piano solo; when Coltrane’s sax came back in Glover took over, postboppin' and grinning, loose as a goose. 
When this joyful journey ended the two men bowed to each other and shook hands. Glover, alone on the stage, recited the roll call of the departed to whom homage had just been paid. He spoke softly, over an electronic track of the spiritual “A Long Way From Home,” while his feet tapped faster and faster. I couldn't catch all the names, but Jimmy Slyde, Chuck Green, Gil Scott Heron, Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis, Jr., the great Lon Chaney and Buster Brown were on the list.  
Glover pivoted around his left foot, eyes closed, instinctually recalling steps learned at the masters’ sides. He flew, landed, raised his palm in thanks.  Davis joined him, and the two, raising their eyes to the posters above, looked solemn and prayerful as the curtain went down.
According to the program notes Glover and Davis are “the last hoofers standing.”  And, as my friend the pianist David Stoler said to me recently, the arts, like life, have an arc.  When it's over, that's what it is.  Just as there’ll be no more Coltranes, or no more Van Goghs, there may well be no more hoofers, and that’s indeed solemn and sad.  But given that the old masters possessed immense warmth, good humor, and soul in spades, the end of SoLe Sanctuary was sort of a letdown.  I’d much rather have seen a big, splashy jazz band on this hearse wagon. 

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