Living the Legacy: Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s 23rd Annual Festival Taps Into Community & Beyond

Jazz lives deeply in Chicago, with a rich & powerful legacy… much like tap in Chicago, but for me it is one that feels somewhat invisible. perhaps it’s just me.  nonetheless this tap legacy is one that -after witnessing Chicago Human Rhythm Project‘s vibrant showcase- provokes the need for serious research and further excavation to understand the depth of its history….

this past Monday night, at the wonderfully intimate and warm  Jazz Showcase , Chicago Human Rhythm Project [CHRP] presented a brilliant showcase where “the ‘pros’ and ‘ams’ came together”. the impressive Lane Alexander, co-founder & director of CHRP, has brought together an incredible group of tap artists from around the world for this festival; in its 23rd year dubbed “Rhythm World”.  inside this world some will teach, others to learn, to perform…many will do ALL of the above.

Jazz Showcase
Jazz Showcase

tonight it’s a true mix of up & coming with masterful artists. walking into the entrance you can already feel the buzz and anticipation for what’s to come. and ambiance! the space: resonant  and low-lit with images of famous musician performers from the past. the present: a trio of musicians offering distinctive jazz  standards, medleys & mashups; complementing  the explosive tap percussive rhythms. and what better way to create ambiance for the tap to come than to have live music! especially with the stellar jazz trio led by Greg Spero on piano,  Junius Paul on bass and Makaya Mccraven on drums. inviting and compelling.

the stage is set…rather a floor has be set on top of the legendary stage of the Jazz Showcase – a staple for kool vibes and koolness all around since 1947. students, teachers and masters of tap have assembled with lovers of tap to witness, be part of and take part in this JAM.

 yes, the stage is about to be lit up! but FIRST:

Lane welcomes us then introduces our host for the evening, Stomp’s Lisa La Touche. she smartly articulates what’s about to happen,  who’s about to come up and offers up nicknames, tidbits and small anecdotes to give further insight into this expansive spectrum of artists & artistry.

with closed eyes listening, i wonder as it begins ‘to stomp or not to stomp’: how will each tap artist share their unique sensibility?

#1 Toronto (Christian) lanky, stomping, fresh eyed, eager

#2 Chicago (Mark/Chicago Tap Theatre) light touches, finely detailed execution, tickling the stage with his foot,  Ali-like, riffs, finesse

#3 NYC  based (Samara & Christina female duo) ‘flava’, communicative to musicians & each other, at points contrapuntal, awakened improvisatory sensation that continues to reverberate throughout the evening.

#4 Texas/NYC (Nicholas Young) spoke to musicians as if he was “conductor’, a conduit, groove, channeling the legacy of tap, put a smile on the pianist’s face, stomp, put his foot down! the strength of his dynamics

the way they communicated to the musicians…a creative symbiosis

#5 N. Carolina (Adriana) seeking to rise to above a challenge. setting the tone for the musicians, began sans music, a sweetness arose, in phrasing in expression, exudes the freeness of free jazz.

#6 Chicago/Boston (Ian/M.A.D.D Rhythms) relentless, confident, syncopated, TALL.

it’s about how they lay into the beat or against the beat, the dynamics, textures, phrasing

#7 Vegas & Australian international duet (Winston & Victoria) him from Melbourne, she living in Vegas. dressed in slacks & collard shirt, all black with dreads, he lays the foundation, hips slightly swaying curving inside the contours of the steps. she of comfort leggings & t shirt, much taller but light and smiling, pounces on top of his smoothness. they finish each others sentences. ends in a layered dense satisfying simultaneity of his and her feet coming together.

#8 Chicago/N. Carolina  ‘national duet’ (Luke & Donnetta) he white, she black both young and vibrant. bass begins, snaps ensue, they go! catch where one ends and take it somewhere else, dazzling footwork (hers),how he lays into a step.  summertime  and the livin is easy floats inside the musical renderings…she of footworKINGz he the “Justin Beiber of tap”.

#9 Chicago (Star) closes out first half.  young & beautifully hip with her tap boots & leggings, her multicolored long tresses.  a sincere koolness, she says hi to us sweetly and then works it out on the floor!  laughter, joy emanates, playfulness, with moments of complex and fast fast footwork.

BREAK. stage ‘cools off” room buzzing with what has been experienced. excitement for who’s to take the stage next….

Adriana Ogle at Jazz Showcase
Adriana Ogle at Jazz Showcase

AND WE’RE BACK!

as #10 Canada (Lisa), proudly proclaiming her “Canadianness” the hostess opens up the 2nd half, contributing her own flair to this richly diverse tapestry of tap. quite clean and graceful.

#11 Japan is in the house! (A trio) probably reppin the youngest tapper of the evening, she is quick and on point with her percussive footwork. two other older but still young men transmit and transcend moments of interplay between the three. snippets Route 66 drip inside the arrangement and they finish with a “bow” to the audience and musicians.

continuing the international flow…

#12 Switzerland (Daniel) head nodding, a far away look that as he searches the music for that precise moment(s) to land, hit, accent and punctuate…

Now for an all star line-up with faculty from CHRP’s festival workshops

#13 Ohio/NYC/Chicago (Sarah) fresh from working alongside Savion Glover,  gives the “go ahead” to the musicians..”I like that” she shares with us as the smile grows and the feet get to moving. sporting a “skull & crossbones” shirt, not at all symbolic of  her feet that are so alive! she shimmers her way to end and curtsies.

#14 Chicago/Riverdance (Tre) nonchalantly drops his keys on a nearby table and with his white patent leather shoes gives full on tap swagger.

diverting to numbers #16 – 18 ALL STARS CONTINUE

#16 Touring the world /Chicago (Nico) though i thought i heard “Rico” and with all intention he gives the best form of “suave” tap one can imagine. it is finessed.  it is smooth.

#17 NYC (Jason) New Jersey born he boldly takes the stage. stomps, commands.  ‘kicks up dust’. contends with the drum. tracks the beats, becomes the beat. an intensity of focus, an exquisite articulation and expression that inspires a mash up of music, an ’empire state of mind‘.

#18 Chicago (Jumaane)  Chi-town closes out the evening with the “bearded hoofer”, hip and elegant. skinny jeans. white shirt. jacket and gold shoes. yes golden. from southside he transports all of that and then some.  “yall know Dr. Jimmy Slyde?” he asks as if he is about to channel this beloved tap legend. indeed he carries forth that prowess as if he is channeling this man. but not just this man. it seems he is channeling the ancestors of Africa through the drums of his feet.  rhythms, at one point like murmurings that resonated throughout the intimate showcase space….ones that that feel ancient, yet he is truly a contemporary artist…

Jumaane Taylor's golden shoes
Jumaane’s golden shoes

and though they did not close out the evening they are the future

#15 Y-Tech (a crew of 10) members from CHRP’s annual Youth Tap Ensemble Conference, this group of young ardent students crowd  the small tap floor ready to jump in! it’s about the blues, a 12 bar moment for each one to show what they got. taking turns in sync with the shifts from chorus to phrase, individually offering a subtle or distinctive touch to how they choose to step, tap or slide. culminating in a full on jam of all 10 on the floor. yes they are students! we are reminded of this when Lisa challenges them by asking them to name the legendary artists displayed throughout The Jazz Showcase. they are still learning of this legacy but it is clear that they are absorbing the essence of tap and it lives deeply within their feet…

Tap Into the Night”,  in its third year at Jazz Showcase. Monday, July 29th, 2013

Jason Janas at Jazz Showcase
Jason Janas at Jazz Showcase

more to come on:

Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s 23rd annual Festival performances  at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Wednesday, July 31st, August 1st and 3rd.

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A legacy in the making – Bolero Chicago’s creative process unfolds within community

creative process unfolding for Bolero at Senn

 

Upon arriving onto the campus of  Nicholas Senn High School, i am reminded of  my last experience here – coming to a Chicago Cultural Plan’s Town Hall meeting.  Prior to that meeting in February,  had not spent much time in this part of Chicago – Edgewater area – and was keenly interested in who resided in this community.  After that meeting i found multiple opportunities to be in this neighborhood; encountering a genuine warmth. A genuine embrace of creativity.  Much like the consultants who organized the town hall meetings were invested in community engagement,  it is  as clearly intentional for both Chicago Dancing Festival and Kegwin & Company to draw Chicagoans into the creative process and performance with Bolero Chicago.  Community engagement through dance making and joyous dancing.  However like my first encounter, i was confused by Senn’s impressive size and varying entrances…if i could only find the magic open door to where the rehearsal will be?

Luckily ran into Ira, who is one of the Chicago participants.  He too is looking for the magic door. Together we stroll around til we find it and enter into the gymnasium where the bulk of the rehearsals will take place. Am immediately welcomed into this process by staff from Chicago Dancing Festival, who fill me in on some bits of detail regarding their initial process of drawing in community members from Chicago (as well as Indiana!) into Bolero – four meetings (again much like the initial community engagement for Chicago Cultural Plan) where potential participants got a ‘taste’ of what would be their role in developing this work.  Deeper into the gym’s space there is a loose circle formed  by participants and two company members from Keigwin & CompanyAshley Browne and Gary Schaufeld.   It’s an intriguing  mix of people from various cultural backgrounds, dance experiences & ages. One festive  young girl named Kyleigh and two men round out a very eclectic group of about 23 dancers…all are dancers at this point; whether or not they may have considered that title before. There is an informal casualness to the environment and the evolving group conversation in which i begin to hear words such as “Violence”; “Peace”. As these are thrown out Ashley responds by affirming the thoughts and  sharing how this theme could potentially be included: “so there can be a section with tie dye …”  Then a bit later another participant throws out : “Magnificent Mile” and  again are affirmed with “shopping” as a correlation towards  perhaps building another section. i find out later from Ashley, that these are responses to prompts she and Gary offered the circle to flesh out themes related to Chicago and being a “Chicagoan”.  The looseness to the array of thoughts and insights synergizes  as both Keigwin dancers take helm of the conversation and clarify the structure of this rehearsal and the piece. They talk about the music, how to ‘count’ the music in relation to the movements, the building of the piece;  all the while drawing the other dancers into a compelling and inviting process of discovery & creating, sprinkled by bouts of laughter and kinetic fun.

Is this the first rehearsal? i wonder as i take in the communal exchanges between the dancers, as if they had known each other, not for a half hour, but as an established  ‘community’ of friends inside a shared experience…a company of dancers ready to tackle the next bit of choreography…serious and invested.  They have to be!  this is a rigorous and intensive schedule.   For  two weeks they will meet for 4 hours a day , 6 days a week, then move onto technical rehearsal at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance with a performance the next day, 20th, AND teching and performing at Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millenium Park, on the closing event “Celebration of Dance” on August 25th.  This in addition to their work/life schedules…wow Why do this? i ask this very question to Ira, whom i met earlier, and he shares with me his love for dance and dancing…While he may be obtaining his graduate degree in Law, dance has  a special place in his life.  Ira does not consider himself a ‘dancer’, but has taken classes in hip hop, ballet and contemporary jazz and recently danced salsa with Urban Vibe for 3 years.  Why this? He saw a performance last year at Chicago Dancing Festival and vowed that if an opportunity like this arised, he would seize it! Well here it is! how timely for him and how grateful he is to be part of this process. “It’s Awesome!” he exclaims and repeats throughout our dialogue… So “awesome’ that , even though he may work a “8am – 5pm” job and this is finals week for him, Ira is committed. “I am glad they are being flexible” he states referring to Keigwin & company’s/Chicago Dancing Festival allowing him to come a bit later to rehearsal.  Always key to communal exchanges like this is to be able to embrace the individual flow of the people’s lives while simultaneously moving towards a clear and well constructed piece.

For Dominique – mother to 3 year old Kyleigh – she wanted her daughter to have an experience that she has not had or would not do. “I’m introverted” she professes as she looks upon her daughter moving in and out of one of the dances being formed… “I wasn’t introduced to dance at her age”… so she believes it’s important for Kyleigh to be exposed to this process as a way of allowing her to express herself in ways her mother hasn’t.  Dominque has never been to see an event of Chicago Dancing Festival before, but if her daughter (and her cousin who is also part of this project) will be performing, she will be there!  With that thought she  again looks over at her daughter  who is now running in and out of the others,  at her cousin trying out a suggested move and the overall bubbling commotion of dance being cultivated in this moment and smiles…

As the creative process unfolds throughout the evening, the beauty of communal discoveries and artistry of crafting emerges. Perhaps by means of  the dancers getting to further ‘know’ each other, a name gesture exercise begins the next phase of rehearsal.  The dancers are tasked with composing their names into a dance, letter by letter, within the timeframe of a Beyonce song! Go!  They finish as the song ends and unite to ‘perform’ their name …’Say my name, Dance my name’ is the game they play as they move through their letters: “V – E- R-O-N-I-C-A” … “L-A-M-A-R”  separately and in communion with the others.  Gary leads the group through articulating some select names or parts of names such as “M-A-T-A”; turning these into phrases that merge with other names and, after breaking into smaller ‘teams’, become group mini dances.  It is a great way for the dancers to express themselves individually and feel empowered to take on the act of crafting.  They engage in immediate collaboration and affirm each one’s creativity and expression… Now the challenge to craft from the themes they had discussed earlier.  Ashley reminds them of  3 themes  they felt garnered a more thoughtful dance-exploration for Bolero Chicago – “road rage”, “baseball” and “pizza”.  they are on it! They jump back  into the smaller grouping and immediately immerse themselves in the collaborative act of  developing these dance motifs…

The dancers busy crafting,  Ashley takes a moment to share with me some of the history of Bolero and what she has witnessed already working with these Chicagoans… “They are very vocal” Yes! We Chicagoans can be…and “that’s a good thing” she interjects.  Is it Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s Pizza?  What identifies Chicago?  Cubs or White Sox? What are the ‘characters’ that you [as Chicagoans] may run into?  such as the ‘preacher” in front of Navy Pier… How does this become inspiration for dance?  “It’s all about [Chicago] culture” Ashley articulates as she moves in and out of our dialogue to assist Gary and the other dancers deepen their exploration of gestures or movements associated with each particular theme.  By the end of this evening, 3 dances – “Pizza”, “Road Rage” and “Baseball” have been deliciously composed…to be abstracted, expanded or extracted as the communal process for Bolero Chicago moves forward…

Through the vision of Larry Kegwin & his company, the ‘dance’ of Bolero has inspired multiple communities throughout the country including NYC {3 times}, Santa Barbara CA, Denver, New Jersey and upcoming in Greensboro. The ‘identity’ of a place, space and people has transformed into unique art making. Beyond the performing of these works,  friendships have deepened or been formed, groups continuing to gather far after the process ends, new communities built and bonded.

Like the other Boleros,  Bolero Chicago may well become a legacy in the making…