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"The New York Times" July 7, 2006
Claudia La Rocco

 

International Dancers Mix Their Traditions Into American Tap

  
  From left, Joseph Wiggan, Yoshiko Hida, Max Pollak, Roxane Butterfly and Victor Jones on drums in 2005
WHEN Alexander Ivashkevich arrived in New York in 1993 from Estonia, he had no money, no job and no place of his own. His English consisted of "yes," "no" and "Coca-Cola."

It didn't matter. He had come to tap. And tap dance he did, studying with Barbara Duffy, Brenda Bufalino, Tony Waag and other members of the American Tap Dance Orchestra. Now, back home in Tallinn, Mr. Ivashkevich is an esteemed actor; he has his own tap studio, his shows sell out, and his students win competitions. Estonian tap is on the verge.

So is European tap — in festivals, arts centers like Barcelona and, more humbly, in eastern cities like Prague, where for decades Communist pressure hindered access to Western culture. Like tap itself — born in early America of many disparate traditions — the art of 21st-century European tap dancers reflects a world in which old and new are constantly blending, and fracturing. Whether it is a young Finnish dancer like Jussi Lindroos experimenting with Nordic folk culture, or a Russian dancer using tap to push the boundaries of circus acts, international artists are aggressively mixing their own traditions into an American form.

This heady mix is coming to New York stages this month. The French hoofer Roxane Butterfly brings her "Djellaba Groove" to Central Park SummerStage tonight and to Joe's Pub tomorrow. Next Friday Tony Waag's Tap City Festival welcomes an array of international tap dancers, including Max Pollak from Vienna, the Feet Beat Tap Ensemble from Helsinki and Guillem Alonso from Barcelona.

Mr. Ivashkevich's odyssey is extreme, but many of its elements echo the development of tap in cities across Europe. He was in acting school 25 years ago when he first saw tap, in an old Hollywood musical, and embarked on the quixotic task of learning this alien art form.

"Nobody could show me tap — nobody," he said in a phone conversation from Moscow, where he was performing as an actor. "Many times I dreamed about this, many times, but I couldn't find a person or way where I could get it."

He was able to learn rudimentary steps, but it wasn't until spring 1992, when the American Tap Dance Orchestra performed in Tallinn, that he was able to take a real lesson from Ms. Duffy, a member of the company. Impressed to find an Estonian who knew a bit about tap, Ms. Duffy offered him free lessons if he ever came to New York, never imagining he would.

But then a letter arrived at the Woodpeckers Tap Dance Studio in Manhattan, followed by Mr. Ivashkevich. He made connections, crashed at various apartments, used his coat for a blanket, worked at odd jobs and subsisted, his teachers recall, largely on bananas.

"This period changed me as a person," he said. When he returned to Estonia, he took rhythm tap — a complex, improvisational style — with him. He performed, gave workshops and opened a school: Duff Tap Dance Studio, after his American teacher, who calls it the greatest honor of her career.

He is one of many Europeans inspired by a Hollywood musical featuring Fred Astaire or the Nicholas Brothers to seek out classes or teach himself. As Kurt Albert, a German tap dancer based in Nuremberg and something of a tap historian, wryly remembered of his early efforts in the mid-1980's, "It was self-made, the worst German tap dancing you can think of."

Enter American tap dancers like Lane Alexander, who runs the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, presents numerous international tappers in Chicago and has taught and performed around the world. The great Jimmy Slyde was a mentor to Sarah Petronio in the 1970's and 80's, helping her introduce rhythm tap to Paris. In Berlin Mr. Albert and his friends were rescued by Carnell Lyons, who had performed from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to Broadway before settling in Europe in the 1950's, as work in America dried up.

By the time Mr. Lyons died at 75 in 1992, he had turned his students over to another American, Brenda Bufalino, and bequeathed his novelty act, a vaudeville specialty involving spinning and tapping on large metal trays, to Mr. Albert and Klaus Bleis, who became Tap & Tray and helped make Germany one of Europe's most vibrant tap destinations.

Europeans also traveled to New York, in what Ms. Petronio's daughter Leela, another accomplished performer who is experimenting with tap and hip-hop dance in Paris, jokingly calls the tap "pilgrimage." In the early 1990's one of the holiest sites was La Cave, a weekly jam session presided over by Mr. Slyde and tap elders including Buster Brown and Lon Chaney, who have since died.

"We called it the University of La Cave," said Roxane Butterfly, laughing. "We were really trying to graduate." Roxane Butterfly (so named by Mr. Slyde), who recently returned to Europe, was one of several international dancers who grew up professionally at La Cave. Mr. Pollak and Tamango, born in French Guiana, were also regulars; both remain in New York. Sebastian Weber from Germany, and Mr. Alonso, a driving force behind Barcelona's current tap boom, came as well.

"In my first years I became friends with Chuck Green, a shaman of tap who I adored and idolized," Mr. Weber wrote in an e-mail message. "He made me tap at La Cave, which — to me — was like an initiation. One day he told me I had my own style. I think I floated two inches above the floor for weeks after. Immediately after he told me this, I decided to make tap dance my profession."

Like Mr. Weber, who creates layered dance-theater productions, many other international tappers are venturing beyond the jazz tradition embodied by these great soloists. In "Djellaba Groove," Roxane Butterfly shuns jazz in favor of Moroccan rhythms, "which force tap out of its traditional vocabulary," she said. Employing North African music, flamenco dance, video and multilingual poetry, she evokes the complex stew of ethnicities in southern France, where she grew up.

Mr. Pollak fell in love with another foreign tradition, the Afro-Caribbean rhythms of Cuba. Marrying the island's rich percussive history and folklore to tap, he created RumbaTap, a mix of body percussion, song and dance. After starting out with Latin jazz musicians in New York, he began traveling to Cuba, working with the revered folkloric troupe Los Munequitos des Matanzas, teaching and performing.

"They keep rebroadcasting TV shows I did, every two months or so — not that they have too much choice" of what can be shown in Cuba, Mr. Pollak said. "I have walked down the street in Havana, and people come up to me and say: 'I saw you on TV. Aren't you the tap dancer?"

Virtuosic, hard-hitting soloists often headline festivals in America. But tap dancers and presenters in Europe expressed far more interest in theatrical, conceptual work that incorporates various art forms: fully fledged, at least partially choreographed shows, as opposed to lineups of improvisers. Asked to name contemporary tap dancers who inspire them, Europeans consistently mentioned artists who are experimenting, either through mixing cultures or art forms or both: dancers like the Israeli-born Sharon Lavi, who lives in Barcelona and, though he dislikes the word fusion, is mixing tap with contemporary movement and a host of ethnic influences.

"You cannot just perform tap for a French audience; they are not interested in just technique," explained the French-born Olivia Rosenkrantz, who now lives in New York. "They can have fun with it for five minutes, but then you need a concept: the lights are important, the theatricality, the story."

Ms. Rosenkrantz is half of Tapage; the other half is the Japanese-born Mari Fujibayashi, whom she met in New York, where both had come to study various art forms. Their choreography blends numerous cultural sensibilities, and while they, like most international tap dancers, have a deep reverence for the jazz masters they learned from, they have no interest in the myth of purity.

"Tap is not codified, like ballet," Ms. Rosenkrantz said. "To me it's like modern dance, completely diverse and open, as long as the technique is there, and the time, how you relate to music."

Ms. Bufalino, a pioneering hoofer who has taught in Europe for years and now performs in the shows of many of her students there, said: "A lot of the very newest and conceptual ideas are coming out of Europe. Americans are a little bit afraid to leave tradition, I think. There's maybe just a little bit too much fealty to the past. Sometimes you can get a little trapped in it — the legends and the masters and all that."

For Americans like Ms. Bufalino and Josh Hilberman, who incorporate humor, characters and disparate theatrical elements into tap, Europe offers a wealth of possibilities.

"Europe is not beholden to our cultural and racist history," Mr. Hilberman said, drawing parallels between the social history of tap and the social history of America. "And Europe is a substitute for the world. Brazil, Japan, Australia — all these places are free to view tap as a contemporary act of expression."

Thomas Marek, an experimental German choreographer, said: "Sometimes I think people here are more daring, even if they're not as good. Tap dance is very sensational in a way, I think. The whole alpha-male thing, the energy — it's very impressive. But the challenge is to do the opposite, to make the audience forget about the technique or the million sounds you produce in a second, and go somewhere else."