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Inventing a modern classic

Savion Glover finds the perfect dance partners in Vivaldi, Bach.

November 10, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

AMERICAN culture is so hopelessly stratified and even splintered that it always seems a heroic attempt at building bridges when our finest choreographers reach beyond the music they are best known for using to add something different to their repertoires.

When neoclassic titan George Balanchine worked with show tunes in "Who Cares?" or black dance icon Alvin Ailey chose serene British lyricism in "The Lark Ascending" or master of all music Jerome Robbins opted for silence in "Moves," the result was more than mere novelty but a lesson in transcending the status quo of a career in favor of another kind of challenge: something more inclusive.

Enter Savion Glover, the funky tap virtuoso known for infusing his art with the rough-edged rhythm and attack of hip-hop and other street idioms. Suddenly he's on the stage of the Irvine Barclay Theatre working with a fine 12-member chamber ensemble to find a place for himself and his taps in the music of Vivaldi, Bach, Mendelssohn and other long-term residents of the classical pantheon.

At its opening on Tuesday, "Classical Savion" suffered from sound imbalances, over-amplification and bursts of feedback. So there were times when Glover didn't so much make a contribution to classical music as nearly obliterate it. More often, he added a predictably intricate but also disarmingly personal percussion track to elegant string compositions, developing steps out of musical motifs and physicalizing their inherent rhythms and riffs before taking them in new directions.

Dancing with his back to the audience in the first moment of Bach's third "Brandenburg" Concerto, Glover launched jazzy call-and-response patterns with the instrumentalists, layering in some incredibly fast, sustained tapping as a kind of obbligato, but also reinforcing the structure of the music with basketball-style jumps in place. As a dialogue with the music -- present and past, S.G. and J.S.B. -- it was sublime.

Aided by near-darkness, his ornamental interplay with woodwind soloist Patience Higgins in the third movement from Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances had an eerie sense of telepathic communion, something like when the soprano and glass harmonica get together in the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor." And it's moments like this that made "Classical Savion" more than a self-infatuated stunt -- proof that Glover can tap to anything.

No, what might well have seemed like arrogance became a young artist's declaration of what culture is for, the link it provides to something greater than yourself and your lifetime, all the choices it offers that you can explore and possibly enhance -- if you're this good.

And, of course, Glover is this good. Tapping full-out in his explosive style for just under two hours on Tuesday, he displayed an amazingly varied technical arsenal -- pounding rhythms and counter-rhythms into the floor, springing up on his toes, swooping in dervish-circles, isolating one foot and then the other, letting the steps carry him into fleeting passages of role-playing and sometimes just settling into a happy groove as if he could keep dancing like this forever.

Introducing the musicians -- and his jazz band, the Otherz -- he responded to their solos with tapping that took you deep inside his intelligence, revealing how he hears music and translates it into steps. Pianist Tommy James gave him freestyle jazz, violinist Eugenia Choi opted for high Baroque and Glover stayed with them, in the moment, but always as himself, excited by the diversity yet grounded, maybe already thinking of his next career surprise.

OF course, purists may grumble that Vivaldi, Bach and Mendelssohn composed without a drum track -- much less a drum track to be performed by a dancer with metal cleats on his shoes. But their scores exist intact, as sheet music, recordings, concert performances, and "Classical Savion" changes nothing if that's what you want.

What it adds is a fantasy of interaction with a tradition that too many people consider embalmed and unyielding, a way of connecting yourself to that tradition even if you prefer dreads to powdered wigs, a way of embracing the totality of our culture. Would J.S.B. have approved? Who cares? Glover's tap "Brandenburg" is a collaboration heroic and inspired, structurally pristine and yet spontaneous as if invented on the spot. Thrilling, first to last. Roll over Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.


'Classical Savion'

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

When: 8 tonight and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Price: $42

Info: (949) 854-4646 or

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