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Joyous moves: Urban Tap.

Dance GumboBy Mae G. Banner

Urban Tap

The Egg, Jan. 20

Haiti, Ivory Coast, Jamaica, French Guiana and New York City all were represented in a smoothly flowing, warm-hearted show conducted by the dancing impresario known as Tamango.

A clever chef of movement and music, Tamango (Herbin Van Cayseele) was born in Cayenne, and raised and schooled in Paris, but he made his name in the downtown clubs of New York, where he gathered singers, dancers, musicians, and tech wizards of the African diaspora into the stewpot of his Urban Tap. Five members of this loosely bound coalition drew a willing audience into the unflagging spirit of their dances in last Friday’s close-up performance at the Egg’s Swyer Theater.

The hit of the show was Vado Diomande, a stilt dancer from the Ivory Coast and member of a family of griots. Nine feet tall in his wrapped stilts, his face hidden by a black stocking mask with a long hanging nose, Diomande was a marvelous character—comical, grotesque, delicate as a French ballerina en pointe. He wore a straw skirt and false hands like whisk brooms, that poked out from his long sleeves. He skreeked and squawked like the Wicked Witch of the West, feigning disgust with Tamango’s tapping.

Diomande lifted and swung one leg in a three-foot-high ronds de jambe that forced everyone to duck their heads. Then, his straw hands fell to the floor and, stiff-legged giant that he was, he couldn’t bend down to recover them. He strove, he prayed, and finally, he did a ceiling-scraping handstand (on his real, but hidden hands) and hand-walked toward the inert straw hands. In a tremendous feat of one-handed balance, he retrieved them, flipped upright onto his stilt legs and swaggered off, triumphant.

When Diomande challenged Tamango to a call-and-response tap number, the whole audience responded like kids at the circus. In a happily involving show, this may have been the most engaging part.

Tamango’s Urban Tap played the Egg’s 900-seat Hart Theater about five years ago with a multi-media show that incorporated dreamy videos of ocean waves and a larger cast of singers and dancers. Friday’s hour-long show was neatly scaled to fit the smaller Swyer. Tamango himself danced far forward on the thrust stage, drawing the audience in with his spidery moves.

Dressed in red tunic and pants with bells at his waist and mojos hanging from his wrists, neck and belt, he played call-and-response rhythm games with himself and with us. He would listen to the sound of his taps, then introduce a counter-rhythm, while father and son Haitian drummers Gaston and James Jean-Baptiste maintained the underlying beat.

Tamango fed off the audience’s energy, conducting the two sides of the house in rhythmic clapping, letting our participation inspire his improvisations. He moved like a side winder snake, always with his knees bent. He used an electronic delay to keep the sound of his taps going beyond what a human could naturally do, and made us believe the magic.

Belinda Becker, originally from Jamaica, danced a curving contrast to Tamango’s angular forms. Becker has brewed her own choreographic style from elements of West Africa, the Caribbean, flamenco, and modern club moves. Essentially, her torso undulated non-stop, while her poetic arms traced flamenco patterns and her feet strummed the ground at warp speed. Her demeanor was inward, calm. She seemed to listen to her own rhythms and to be rightly pleased with what her body could do.

By now, audiences have learned to connect the dots between traditional African moves and their Caribbean and North American progeny. We know there are stilt dancers in Congo Square and mud- pounding feet in half-time stepping shows. Still, it’s thrilling to see the past and present brought together on one small stage. Right in front of our eyes, Tamango and Urban Tap peeled back the layers and smoothly fit them together again.


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