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Making it look so easy

The Jazz Tap Ensemble footwork is dazzling, but where are the passion and confrontation?

October 10, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

No matter how powerfully their shoes slam into the floor or how much they sweat through their casual clothes, the members of the Jazz Tap Ensemble like to pretend they're dancing inside their comfort zone.

At the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre on Friday, you could see -- over and over -- that looking accomplished but genial has become the company's signature style, adopted by everyone from the teenage trainees of the Caravan Project all the way up to the resident seniors.

For a while, there's immense pleasure in the percussive intricacy of the dancers' technique, their sophisticated interplay with one another and with the equally fine musicians, even their ability to project a cheery, have-a-nice-day sweetness to the far ends of this outdoor venue.

Channing Cook Holmes lopes into "April in Paris" so nonchalantly that his spectacular explosions of taps -- when the music speeds up and in an unaccompanied section -- take you by surprise. Big guy, big rhythm.

Addicted to spats and a disarming, eager-to-please manner, Joseph Wiggan launches into brilliantly embellished turns in "In Walked Monk."

His sister Josette Wiggan has perfected a throwaway style, which turns out to be pure illusion in pieces such as "Groove," because nobody onstage executes the steps more clearly than she does.

So it goes: Becky Bloom looks perky and sharp all night. Sam Weber stays impossibly cool in "All the Things You Are" while performing a dazzling array of perfectly timed taps to alternating jazz and classical accompaniments.

Only Ayodele Casel seems gripped by something more involving than showcasing expertise -- fighting to turn feelings into steps in "Delilah." But she's new here, and she'll soon learn that fighting isn't allowed.

To be fair, company co-founder Lynn Dally does attempt meditative tap in "Fragile," working with guest vocalist Kate McGarry, but the result proves devitalized -- a welcome contrast to the focus on upbeat proficiency, nothing more.

That focus can make you undervalue the company and wish that someone would dare explore long-form structures or grow passionate, assaultive, confrontational.

There's plenty of jazz like that, but the company's expressive range stays so light and breezy that, sooner or later, all the skill in the world just isn't enough.

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