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PERFORMING ARTS | COMMENTARY

Da Beat's Sending Dance Back to Basics

At a time when concert dance has become virtually invisible in the mainstream, the new trend is to resort to pure muscle power.

September 22, 1996|Lewis Segal | Lewis Segal is The Times' dance critic

In the award-winning Broadway tap-musical "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk," capital letters projected above the stage enforce a revisionist view of biblical genesis: "In the beginning there was . . . da beat!" That motto would seem equally at home in four popular shows headed for Southern California or already here.

Like "Noise/Funk," the all-male, industrial-style "Tap Dogs" (at the Veterans Wadsworth Theater through today) finds bold and sometimes startling new contexts for tap-dancing. In contrast, the hip-hop showcase "Jam on the Groove" (coming to the Wadsworth Tuesday-Oct. 6) and the Irish step-dancing spectacle "Riverdance" (due at the Pantages Theatre, Nov. 15-Dec. 1) both create new respect for subculture idioms that only a coterie audience took seriously not long ago.

And then there's the show best known to local audiences: "Stomp" (returning for its fourth Southland engagement in March), in which ordinary household objects inspire extraordinary percussive and movement experiments.

However different they may be in their movement languages and points of origin, these dance shows all belong to da beat, body and soul. Call it a strategy for survival. At a time when concert dance has become virtually invisible in the American cultural mainstream, this new trend in dance-theater reaches out to the mass audience by starting over, reconnecting the viewer to the primal heartbeat of dance: percussive rhythm.

Moreover, all these shows reflect a search for new staging formats, new ways of conveying the dance experience with maximum immediacy, rejecting the Apollonian reserve of most concert dance--and the sense of viewing a choreographic museum, exhibit by exhibit. In its place, they offer an experiential, Dionysiac immersion in high-energy muscle power.

"Dance artists have to find new solutions if they want to be out there and seen," says Margaret Selby, a former producer for the PBS "Dance in America" series and the producer of "Jam on the Groove." "Right now, most people in America either don't know what a dance concert is or, worse, they come with a preconceived notion."

By taking hip-hop, break-dancing and other contemporary forms into the concert arena, "Jam on the Groove" is helping rebuild the dance audience, Selby says. "We get families, teenagers, single women, the gay audience, people from the media--and from the 'hood. For them, this is the new modern dance."

"Most young people have no use for theater or [concert] dance," says Richard Frankel, general manager for "Stomp." "Young people are used to seeing ideas and emotions more directly expressed in [rock] music and movies. However, 'Stomp' expresses itself in such an intense and joyful way that it has arguably sucked them into the theater."

Both "Jam on the Groove" and "Stomp" developed directly from street performance--the former in New York City, the latter in Brighton, England. Evolving in Newcastle, Australia, "Tap Dogs" also strongly reflects its urban origins. Moreover, most of these shows cultivate an anti-professional stance--an impatience with the traditional training process for dancers and choreographers that grants them acceptance only after their rough edges and much of their individuality have been refined away.

In contrast, these shows glory in their streetwise iconoclasm. Even "Riverdance," the most conventional in format and slickness, pumps up the intensity and achieves a major breakthrough: changing Irish step-dancing from a historical skill that has survived mainly through competitions--rather like archery--into a full-blooded, expressive theater form.

Indeed, all these shows reinvent or rehabilitate idioms that have become stale or degraded through over-familiarity and commercialization. "Jam on the Groove" repudiates soulless Hollywood, chorus-line hip-hop, while "Noise/Funk" and "Tap Dogs" reject the suave, top-hat-and-tails image of tap along with the mellow, arguably feminized jazz-tap alternative of recent years.

In style, these shows most resemble rock concerts or MTV videos, though they focus on igniting group virtuosity rather than merchandising music or dramatizing star power. Yes, some of them do have stars: Savion Glover in "Noise/Funk," for example. But however much "Riverdance" originally depended on the prowess of champion Irish American step-dancer Michael Flatley, its spectacular New York success after his departure proves that the show's the thing.

Nearly as central as da beat to this appeal is the tribal masculinity projected by all these shows--not so much a blue-collar sensibility as a no-collar one, and often no shirt as well. It ranges from the sweaty, macho hedonism of "Tap Dogs" to the comparative restraint of "Riverdance"--though, as Time magazine noted, that show's unaccompanied "Thunderstorm" septet for men in black T-shirts, tight pants and boots represents its "most consistent showstopper."

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