The often-quoted observation, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," is true in the case of the locally based Jazz Tap Ensemble. Everything from personnel to choreographic approach has gone through transformations, but, as hometown audiences will see at the Japan America Theatre on Friday and Saturday, the company's dedication to the art of rhythm tap is unaltered.
Artistic director Lynn Dally, the only remaining member of the original three tap-loving modern dancers and three jazz musicians who launched the group in a Venice loft-studio in 1979, calls the changes healthy.
"At this point," Dally says, "the group has enough of a history to be able to be looked back at and seen in perspective. The fact that the group continues to function through all the changes proves that the concept has always been sound."
Still, she admits that "it would be wonderful if the same people could keep doing it for a long, long time, but not everyone can make the sacrifices."
The difficulty in keeping performers with the troupe is generally economic rather than artistic, she points out. The ensemble's successes, including an impressive list of national and international tours, don't always bring in enough money to support six people on a full-time basis.
Difficult or not, the group still manages to attract experienced professionals. Sam Weber, who replaced the Jazz Tap Ensemble's co-founder, Fred Strickler, and Terry Brock, replacing Heather Cornell, joined the company on a recent coast-to-coast tour and will be introduced to local audiences at this week's appearances.
Weber, 36, has an eclectic background that includes a one-year stint with the Joffrey Ballet, guest appearances with the San Francisco Ballet and in the Peninsula Ballet Theatre "Nutcracker," and performances with a Russian folk dance ensemble. His tap dance style is airy and he frequently uses his ballet-trained legs to launch him on long-distance flights.
Weber acknowledges the inevitability of comparisons between him and Strickler. "Fred is more theatrically oriented than I am," he explains. "I approach the work by starting with a piece of music and a rhythmical idea and not a theatrical element such as the mood, etc."
The main differences, Weber says, come from a combination of personal responses and background. "The ballet influence, for example, means not only a difference in a way of moving, but also a difference in the rhythms one chooses."
Weber has had an enviable career as a ballet dancer, but ballet was not his first love. He started as a tap dancer and was a student of popular San Francisco teacher Stan Kahn. Weber learned Kahn's original "Kahnotation" system for writing down tap dance steps and now serves as Jazz Tap Ensemble's "unofficial choreologist," documenting the group's repertory.
The other newcomer, Terry Brock, has a much more immediate and showy dance style, formed by her years on the road as a touring dancer with the likes of Ben Vereen, Shirley MacLaine and Carol Channing.
Brock sees herself as "the third person who rounds out the geometrical stage picture. My presence and carriage give the balance between Lynn's modern style and Sam's balletic style."
It took her a while, Brock says, to get accustomed to the ensemble's pursuit of "serious tap artistry."
"I was used to a theatrical pace," she explains. "It was so frustrating for me at first when they would spend a four-hour rehearsal working on one section of one piece. For me, the whole number should have been done fast: 'crank, crash' and all the stress."
Now, she says, she has caught her colleagues' enthusiasm. "I enjoy the camaraderie of peers and the riches of tap commitment. There is a strong desire to keep this kind of tap going."
"We have to do it," she adds. "We're the next generation. Who else will pass it on?"
Passing on the tap dance traditions Jazz Tap Ensemble has helped preserve is a high priority with all the dancers in the group. Artistic director Dally tells of an apprentice program the group is getting ready to launch. The selected apprentices will opportunity to attend company rehearsals and receive personal tutoring. "They'll have all the opportunities that company members have--and eventually they'll have the opportunity to perform with the company," she says.
The apprentice program will prime new dancers for possible expansion of the company or for future changes.
Meanwhile, the current members of the troupe are not ready to pack in their tap shoes just yet.
"I'm still driven by the things I've always been driven by," Dally exclaims.
"This is not like the fading ballerinas with their eyelashes drooping,' Brock, 34, adds. 'In tap, the older you get, the more skill you gain."