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Modern Tap 


Alexander Michaels/Future Movement

at Northeastern Illinois University

May 31 and June 1

Lane Alexander and Kelly Michaels had an idea: to combine tap and modern dance in their choreography. They formed a dance company--Alexander Michaels/Future Movement, or am/FM--to showcase their works. But because the two forms have traditionally varied in both audience appeal and artistic goals, there's an automatic tension built into the combination.

Tap has always had popular appeal. Tappers perform for their audiences, blatantly seeking to please them with splashy attention-getting gimmicks: Sandman Sims danced on sand, and the Nicholas Brothers added an acrobatic touch by jumping down flights of stairs. Not only is there a commercial appeal to such pyrotechnics, but audiences love to watch performers competing, and the tap challenge--where each dancer tries to outdo the other with each new step--feeds naturally into this. People are forever saying tap is dying, but it's always revived whenever someone remembers the mystique of its showmanship.

Modern dance, on the other hand, has its roots in ideas: Isadora Duncan, when she shed her corset, wanted to liberate the spirit along with the body. The early modern-dance choreographers created dances with messages, protesting society's injustices, and technique was a tool--a means to action, not an end in itself. Eventually this preoccupation with ideas led to the equivalent of conceptual art: postmodern dance dealt only with the concept of movement. Experimental dances at New York City's Judson Church in the 60s often didn't even use the trained bodies of "real" dancers, incorporating natural movement instead, including that of randomly chosen pedestrians.

It's hard to make a hit movie or Broadway play based on that. Take a poll of 100 people in the street, and chances are they've heard of Gregory Hines, maybe even seen him tapping on the big screen. But how many of those same people have heard of Paul Taylor or postmodern choreographer David Gordon? Audiences for modern dance have historically been small; it has a reputation for being esoteric. People would rather be entertained than made to think.

So when someone comes along with the idea to combine the two forms, you're bound to see a few raised eyebrows. Alexander and Michaels, according to the program notes for their performance at Northeastern Illinois University, want to "bring together two distinctly American art forms, Modern Dance and Tap, presenting the best of both." Actually, they don't accomplish anything quite so grand, because they never truly fuse tap and modern dance. But they do come up with some interesting results by juxtaposing the two--in Translations (choreographed jointly) and Shamrocks (choreographed by Michaels), the two duets that opened the program. These are essentially excuses for solo work by each dancer placed side by side. There's not much integration, but by placing the two forms in such close proximity, you notice things about each that you normally wouldn't. Alexander is such a technically proficient tapper that any excuse for him to dance is fine by me; he's a crowd pleaser for good reason, with stage presence in abundance. Like every good tapper, he gives the audience what they want, and with a broad smile. But his dancing isn't made just by personal appeal: his solid, clear footwork is a joy to listen to as well as watch.

Alexander's choreography shows the same conscious nod to the audience, but he adds more. . . . 33 1/3 . . . 45 . . . 78 . . ., a duet in three parts, begins elegantly a la Astaire with Alexander and Michaels in tuxes dancing suavely in unison. The tempo picks up in the second part, when the two return to the stage minus their tails, and zooms full speed ahead in the final section, when their cummerbunds are gone and their shirts are hanging open. The laid-back costuming contrasts with the furious dancing to keep up with the music--a tour de force tap performance, especially on Alexander's part. With each new section, the audience leans further forward, watching more intensely.

Alexander keeps his Nellie's Ragtyme "Sweet" from becoming too cute by making the tapping advance the dance's plot, an innovative enough touch to prevent this work from seeming just another nostalgic look at ragtime. Though stories told in dance are not new, it's not often done in tap, and certainly not with a line-up of four tappers (Alexander, Michaels, Nadine Nagi, Nila Barnes) playing a family, using facial expression and body movement to the hilt.

Paradoxically, Michaels's modern- dance work, Out Back to Back, Face to Face Front was as big a showstopper as 33. Aptly placed as the finale, it fulfills the old Broadway precept, leave the audience wanting more. Michaels takes full advantage of the floor work possible in modern dance, and creates not only some pretty patterns and body shapes but a free-flowing, fluid vocabulary that is quite breathtaking to watch. Though in his solos he had moved rather stiltedly, with a stiff back, here he gives in to gravity with the natural exuberance of Doris Humphrey's technique, maintaining bravura movement.

There's no tapping in Out Back to Back, but the choreography is good, so no one cares--everyone applauded wildly at the end. Hopefully Michaels will focus more on such pieces in the future and less on his self-indulgent solos, and he and Alexander will choreograph more like 33 1/3. Whether they ever produce a true fusion of tap and modern doesn't really matter as long as they keep their audiences entertained--aware of the two forms, comparing them and thinking about them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Canale.

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