Spring/Summer 2008, Volume 24.3
Erik Stern holds a BA in Biology from UC Santa Cruz and an MFA in Dance from Cal Arts, and has worked as a choreographer, dancer, educator, actor and musician. In 2006, Erik created "Demolition Derby—when a mind loses its license to drive," which was performed last November in New York City and led to collaborations with medical, research and arts groups. Touring with Tandy Beal and Company for ten years, Erik recently reprised his role as William Blake in Repertory Dance Theatre’s production of "Outside Blake’s Window." The Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern Dance Ensemble, which he co-directs with Karl Schaffer, has toured throughout North America and received five grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. On the roster of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Partners In Education program, they tour nationally to share their expertise on how to connect dance and mathematics in the classroom. In 2006 Stern staged, directed and performed in "Navigating Lake Bonneville." He recently was at Appelboom, a resident artists’ program in rural France. He is a frequent dabbler in tap dance.
For a moment, think back. I mean way back. To the time when people were first doing people things: painting, dancing, cooking, singing, praying, talking, healing, weaving, building, drumming. Of drumming and dancing, which do you think came first? Or were they rolled into the same action?
Two controversial thinkers weighed in on this question. In The Dance of Life (1923) Havelock Ellis, a pioneer in sex research, wrote: "The art of dancing stands at the source of all the arts that express themselves first in the human person." Ezra Pound, the great and troubled 20th century poet, obliquely echoed this sentiment in ABC of Reading (1934), when he noted that "Music rots when it gets too far from the dance."
However it worked back then, today they are separate, particularly in the professional world. You dance or you drum. Unless you happen to be Savion Glover, who likes to mix up the job descriptions by saying that sound, not looks, is what counts in hoofing. He would, I think, beg to differ with Havelock and Ezra.
Before performing last summer in London, he told a British interviewer, "We want tap to be accepted as a sound…. It’s beyond music. It just becomes sound." He famously told director George C. Wolfe, "I just want to bring in the noise. I just want to bring in the funk," leading to the Tony Award winning Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. The word "dance" creeps in when he’s talking about the overall act. Get specific, and he responds about the aural side of it. Back in the mid-nineties on The Charlie Rose Show he said, "People were asking me where do I think tap is going, and I’d say, ‘It’s going back to the basics. To the rhythm.’"
In other words, he is a drummer, and one need look no further than the title of his latest tour, "Bare Soundz," for further proof (January 5, Park City’s Eccles Center for the Performing Arts). On stage were three raised wooden rectangles, each about eight feet by four feet. They struck me as a cross between sections of elevated floor and sturdy, low-lying timpani. Big sound-makerz.
After the lights dimmed there was a pause long enough to suggest something was wrong. Then, as if an afterthought, a man walked out. In the dim pre-show light he could have been a stagehand, or someone headed for the restroom. Two men followed. The first man stepped on the platform, his famous dreadlocks now apparent, and began applying his feet to the surface without acknowledging those of us watching. His partners joined him. They proceeded to tap, stomp, drag, flick, machine-gun, heel, jump and slide on the drumheads. Often two dancers were the rhythm section while the other, usually Mr. Glover, soloed. Some of the themes were long, unpredictable and gloriously rich and were developed in the manner of jazz standards: introduce the idea, hand it back and forth, climax, restate and end. They were as tight as one could hope for.
Mr. Glover’s accidental entrance seemed designed to make us listen, to focus on the tone and not the celebrity. The heel BOOMED while the next toe came off like the daintiest rim shot. Somehow he could make one toe a different pitch than the other, giving the rhythm a melody, as if they were tuned toms (I’m dying to ask him if, as in the classic Spike Lee-Michael Jordan Nike commercial, it’s the shoes).
What surprised me, though, was another sort of tone. A few of my modern and ballet dance teachers (Tandy Beal in particular) emphasized the "tone" of one’s body, referring not to muscular definition but the way the entire physical presence can ring with vibration. On video Mr. Glover leaves a vastly different impression than he does live (aided by a good set of binoculars my son schlepped but that I hogged throughout). Video, for some reason, takes my eye to his torso: that downward focus, the arms that rarely go above the shoulders. But the naked eye and the binoculars zeroed my attention in on those skinny bent knees pressing against his beige slacks, and how his legs fall from the waist to the floor. His unearthly contact with the dark wood maintained its purity as much when he thwacked with the side of his shoe as when he shuffled lightly.
And there’s that beatific demeanor, entranced by the rhythm. Video may inform us he’s not looking at his audience when he dances (I mean, drums), but it deprives us of the generosity you get in person: that he is doing this for you, that his communication is so effective eye contact is unnecessary.
Growing up in L.A., I got to see my share of virtuosi: Vladimir Horowitz dazzling on the keyboard, Rudolph Nureyev imposing at the Greek Theatre, Marcel Marceau conjuring. More recently, I witnessed Leo Kottke’s ability to create an orchestra on one instrument, and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s now subdued brand of physical perfection. Savion Glover stands out. A few times, especially when the piece had a 6/8 feel, he bent his head almost as low as his waist, palms facing up, in an African stance. After these pieces I looked around and noticed a split in audience reaction: young people cheered and accepted the purity of it, while the seniors applauded tepidly. Did the baby-boomers want more choreography to help them see the rhythm, or was it just too far aesthetically from Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, also renowned for his purity of tone?
No matter how complex and fast things got, the timing and tone retained their purity. His partners kept up in terms of speed and accuracy, but the clarity fell short, both in terms of sound and physicality. Their shoulders hardly moved; their arms were stiff. I couldn’t help but think their attenuated motion hindered the sound, which was duller and lacked the range in timbre of their leader. I’ve long noticed that great musicians have a flow to their body (thus, I suppose, melting the distinction between movement artist and sound artist and bolstering Mr. Glover’s assertion). His young drum-mates would benefit from such a flow. Mr. Glover, I mentioned, is not interested in how he looks. So be it. Then the motion and out-of-this-world efficiency he achieves is practical and facilitates his sound.
It’s also articulate; and light, and clear, hovering above the floor. Funny, isn’t it, these words are often used to describe the man who looked the dancer: Fred Astaire. Astaire dabbled heavily in tap, but was first and last a mover.
In the second half, Glover entered in spiffy green shoes and immediately acknowledged the audience; microphone in hand, he introduced the first dance, "Trading Places." Hanging around the stage left floor-drum, the three hoofers took turns stepping onto it, making statements with a rhythmic phrase, and jumping off so the next could take over where the one left off. It was the truest embodiment of his coined term, "Improvography," a relaxed, self-evident call-and-answer format. In another piece in 6/8, he chanted softly into the mic while tapping. When thanking the audience, he apologized for his late entrance at the beginning, saying he didn’t mean to waste our time; it’s just that they hadn’t realized it had started.
Toward the end of the show, he began a phrase only with the tips of his shoes, faster than toes should move, and so imperceptible my binoculars left me wondering if it were some sort of trick. Speaking of speed, why does every section have to culminate in a blurred flurry of metal to wood? If the bebop speed-demon, saxophonist Charlie Parker, once in a while took his time with a ballad, why not slow down and explore those tones? Some of the most gripping works by the great hoofer duo Charles "Honi" Coles and Charles "Cholly" Atkins were elegant, full of vibrating empty space, and slow.
I’ve long argued that musicians are movement artists and that they should view themselves as such. To a lesser extent I’ve told dancers they have to be musicians.
I’ve even wondered aloud that painting and sculpture, for example, could be viewed as a device for recording artists’ motions, sort of the original Wii: rather than transferring the motion to a screen, it is transferred to, say, canvas or marble.
But these chicken-and-egg questions—which was the first performing art? which sense is more important to reach?—lose their luster next to the indivisibility of Mr. Glover’s art. Maybe he chooses names like "Bare Soundz" to free himself of expectations about tap, allowing him to do whatever he wants. If it helped him get were he is—a place no other dancer has seen—it was a good move.
So why do I still think of him as a dancer? Well, only hearing him tap is unsatisfying; one has to see his flow to get the rhythm.
There’s also the mixed message. He says the sound counts, but I ask you, who could wear bright green shoes and not expect us to watch?