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Bring in 'da finesse

Savion Glover says he's smoothed his tap melody. He and his show intend to surprise.

March 21, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

When Savion Glover isn't redefining the art of tap-dancing, he slips the most famous feet in show business into size 12 1/2 Jordans or boots.

Filling that footwear would be a tall order for anyone else, because nobody in millennial dance so dominates any style or idiom as definitively as Glover dominates tap. At 31, he's the acknowledged master -- the summation of tap's past, the torchbearer for its future -- with no real rivals on the horizon but plenty of imitators and proteges.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Savion Glover -- An article in Monday's Calendar section about Savion Glover said he made his Broadway debut at 12 in "The Tap Dance Kid" and his film debut at 13 in "Tap." Glover first performed in "The Tap Dance Kid" at 10 and at 13 he was cast in "Tap."

Sitting in a Burbank dressing room before a TV taping -- his thick dreads tied back, his skinny arms wrapped around his chest -- he tries to laugh away the hype about himself.

"I'm happy that people think of me as the greatest tap-dancer that ever lived," he says. "But it's just a rumor. Because the greatest dancer that ever lived knows everything, and I don't. I'm still learning. I still have a lot of work to do."

Some part of what he's learned will be on view Tuesday though Saturday at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood in a program called "Improvography." Act 1 features his solo improvisations; Act 2, his choreography for himself and the dancers billed as Chapter IV: Maurice Chestnut, Ashley DeForest and Cartier Williams.

"We sort of made a safety net with that title," Glover explains. "Anything can happen at these shows. We may have some guests come on, some surprise dancers, something like that. I may do something that even the band doesn't know that I'm going to do. We'll keep it fresh, keep the improvisation."

Featuring a four-member jazz band, the program will give local audiences their first chance to hear Glover sing -- both scat syllables and lyrics, he says -- along with their first experience of him as a songwriter. He also plans a tribute to beleaguered pop star Michael Jackson, because, he says diplomatically, "there's so much negativity now around him."

"You have people who literally stole his style -- people who sing and do that type of dancing. But if you ask them where they got it, they say, 'This is my own style, blah, blah, blah, blah.' So if these people aren't even acknowledging him, I feel that I should say to the world and to M.J., 'Thank you for the influence you've had on me.' "

Glover talks a lot about influences -- especially the veteran tap stylists he grew up emulating. He began his performing career at age 6 as a drummer in Newark, N.J., but two years later his mother signed him up for dance lessons in New York City and he quickly became spellbound by the likes of such rhythm-tappers or hoofers as Chuck Green and Lon Chaney. (He and wife Nina's 5-month-old son is named Chaney.)

"They're definitely a part of me," he says of a tap generation now passing into history. "I loved everything about their state of being, their way of living. To me, they will always be the greatest."

Glover made his Broadway debut at 12 in "The Tap Dance Kid" and his film debut at 13 in "Tap," and for five seasons he was a regular on PBS' "Sesame Street." Although he grew up in public, he kept surprising everyone with new approaches and ambitions -- for instance, using tap to retell black American history in the award-winning 1996 Broadway musical "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk."

More recently, he scored another breakthrough by tapping to Bach, Bartok and Vivaldi in a program titled "Classical Savion." However, the challenge of Baroque masterworks caused him to modify his style -- now just as fast and intricate as ever but far less deliberately clompy and rough-edged in attack. "I'm trying to make tap more sound-friendly," he explains. "I want it to be melodic and musical. I want people to enjoy the sound of tap."

A company videotape of "Classical Savion" shows him lurching and flailing as always, looking like a conventional performer only when accepting an ovation. Nobody's idea of poetry in motion. But the sound of him -- the way his footwork exactly matches the keyboard playing or creates counter-rhythms in a piece -- is newly dazzling.

"We need to go back to when tap was identified with sound," he says. "I don't think anyone's ready for it right now, but I want to do a show that's all dark: You come into a theater and you never see anything. I'm trying to figure out how we can do that."

Glover understands that some people in the tap world are concerned about this kind of thinking and the effect it's had on his style. He says his tap buddy Chance Taylor cautioned him recently against abandoning steps, arguing it was no longer exciting to watch him.

"But in my mind, that's great," he says. "Because people should be listening."

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