At its best, the tap dance sampler program called "The Essence of Rhythm," Saturday in Royce Hall, UCLA, offered an idealization of basic locomotion: the essence of walking.
From the late John W. Bubbles' jaunty ascent up a staircase of packing crates (in a vintage film excerpt) to Charles (Honi) Coles' elegant loping steps in his brief solos, the evening illustrated Coles' statement, "if you can walk, you can dance," by showing how walking can become dancing.
Here was Linda Sohl-Donnell, leader of the locally-based host company, LTD/Unlimited, ambling through an Eddie Brown solo, "Tribute," every step intricately ornamented. Here was Brown himself in a loose-limbed shuffle that yielded the most delicately modulated tap-sonics imaginable. And here was Howard "Sandman" Sims, virtuosically kick-walking, heel-clicking and running in place with a vigor that reminded you of tap's origins as street dance.
However, Sohl-Donnell, Brown and even Sims were far better showcased in a February LTD/Unlimited performance at the Japan America Theater--for, at worse, the UCLA proceedings degenerated from too much talk into something approaching the essence of bull.
In a numbing demonstration of what killed vaudeville, Coles and, especially, Leonard Reed made lame jokes, kept extorting additional ovations from an already generous audience--but never supplied some crucial information.
The great Jimmy Slyde, for instance, had been scheduled to appear but canceled, reportedly due to the illness of his father. Somehow, no opportunity arose to explain Slyde's absence in all the self-congratulatory jabber.
Besides the dance-time lost to M.C. indulgences, the opportunity for varied, leisurely sets by Coles and Brown became curtailed by a surfeit of mediocre acts (the hard-driving but ungainly Steve Condos, the effusive but technically unexceptional Frances Nealy) and lots of unison LTD numbers.
One short, quietly sensational tribute to Bill (Bojangles) Robinson and two inconclusive solo-fragments suggested something of Coles' artistry but, coupled with the endless banter, added up to more of a personal appearance than a performance.
Both in taps and on his amplified sand board, Sims put over his familiar act with immense energy and freshness. As for Brown, he confined his serious dancing to one brilliantly musical solo and a genial number ("Just Layin' Down the Taps") with the five LTD women in which they developed motifs from his mini-solos while he, in turn, adopted elements of their more formal visual style.
Compared to the more physically supple and musically responsive February performance, LTD itself looked glossy and flat on Saturday, with only Monie Adamson defining a personality in her dancing.
To a lush arrangement by Phil Wright (leader of the fine 16-member band accompanying all the dancing), Sohl-Donnell's new "Dark Eyes" contrasted footloose sorties by Adamson and Beverley Scott with movement by Sohl-Donnell, Karol Lee and Pauline Hagino on, with or around chairs. The intriguing interplay of horizontal and vertical, seated and standing motion never really developed but, more seriously, the dancers stayed mired in a bright, vacant expertise.
Between Frances Nealy's generation (with its hotter rappin' than tappin') and the faceless, rhythm-is-of-the-essence Tap Revival era defined by Sohl-Donnell and her company, some sort of lock down of expressivity occurred for women in tap. Lynn Dally (of the Jazz Tap Ensemble) has been exploring avenues of escape, but even she is far from the full-bodied tap emotion that Gregory Hines has achieved.
Perhaps because tap used to be an almost exclusively male domain, most of the current crop of female revivalists seem to have appropriated not only male attire but also what they consider to be male impassivity. That's the greatest limitation of LTD/Unlimited right now: a kind of unyielding, desexualized efficiency that fails to address who might be dancing these routines--and why.