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Danceworks on Tap Shows What's Tappenin'

Aug. 15, 2017
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Photo credit: Christal Wagner

I snagged the last seat in the Danceworks theater for the opening performance of Danceworks on Tap’s new show, What’s Tappenin’? As more folks arrived, they sat on the floor in front, filling it. Founding Artistic Director Amy Brinkman-Sustache welcomed the crowd and asked if any were new to a DOT show. Almost no one was. Aficionados all, they whooped and applauded explosively for each act in the tight, intelligent, perfectly executed hour of entertainment that followed.

I set my critical faculties aside five numbers into the show when guest artist virtuosos Bob Balderson and Lamont Johnson, wearing shades, black hats and vests sporting red carnations, tapped an old-school vaudeville-style duet and traded licks to Natalie Cole’s rendition of “Almost Like Being In Love.”

The evening’s opener was a rhythm-focused pure tap dance by Brinkman-Sustache for seven of DOT’s skillful 10-woman troupe—a conversation in a language of feet and floor as social and compelling as a good drum circle.

Brinkman-Sustache has an educator’s heart. Tap’s African American genesis and contradiction-filled place in the history of race relations were quietly honored. Charismatic spoken word poet Kavon Cortez Jones, a black Milwaukeean of 22 years, performed second. In dancing speech and rhythmic arm gestures, he delivered an original love poem to Milwaukee’s East Side. Later in the show, he returned with four DOT dancers in a format alternating spoken rhythmic poetry and tapping feet. The subject was universal connection. A sophisticated tap dance by longtime DOT virtuosos Annette Grefig and Rachel Payden to blues singing by Melody Gardot followed.

Three “Interludes” during the show compared tap with hip-hop dance; a theme first raised in Danceworks’ annual hip-hop showcase two weeks ago. The young hip-hop prodigy Gabi Sustache and the grown-up Nikki Platt, a tapper from the age of 2, showed how each style builds rhythmic energy. Along with a reminder of the contributions of black people to mainstream culture, my conclusion was that tap makes the greater demands; perhaps because the style’s longer history is so multifaceted.

As if to make that point, Brinkman-Sustache, Sustache and Grefig, holding parasols, tapped to a remix of Gene Kelly singing “Singin’ in the Rain” (“Tapping in the Rain”). Then, guest Ryan Cappleman nailed a swinging rendition of “Cheek to Cheek” on piano (“Cheek to Cheek to Cheek to Cheek”) as Platt, Payden and guest Liam Alba sang in a rehearsal scene that transformed into a Broadway-style tap quartet with split-second costume changes.

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