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We Got the Beat
By Mae G. Banner

Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk
Proctor’s Theatre, June 3

Savion Glover may be the draw, but he’s not the whole show in this smashing reprise of 1996 Tony Award- winner Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk. The road show, seen at Proctor’s last week, is a quadruple threat of dance, original songs, polyphonic bucket drumming, and poetic rap.

The first three legs of this table were magnificent. Glover and his jazz-tapping compadres, including 13-year-old Cartier A. Williams as The Kid, gave a thousand percent, making stunning body music in “Som’thin’ From Nuth’in’” and tapping elegantly or wildly in “Conversations” and “Hittin’.”

Lynette DuPree was a presence in white mink or black sequins, a singing griot who told the double history of “the Beat” and the African-Americans who invented it and maintained it through slavery, lynchings, migrations, race riots, and Hollywood’s attempt to smooth away the hoofers’ raw authenticity. DuPree wrapped her voice around a compendium of styles: country blues, Bessie Smith moaning, Josephine Baker teasing, Mahalia Jackson gospel, Billie Holiday urbanity, and more. She nailed every one.

The bucket drummers, from the original Broadway cast, were Jared Crawford and Raymond King. They still have the edge they honed when they performed on the streets and in the subways of New York. In “The Pan Handlers,” they played a brilliantly tuned battery of pots, pans and lids hung like gongs from a standing rack. That’s not to mention the extra set of ringing pots each man wore like shields strapped to his chest, back and buttocks. Each wielding a pair of drumsticks, they flipped and turned, making music on each other’s bodies as well as on the chiming utensils. It was glorious.

Crawford and King provided manic or funky rhythms all through the high-energy show, but their “Drummin’” number on white plastic buckets was a tour de force, an amazing cascade of tumultuous sound that equaled a full percussion orchestra. One man was all muscle and bone, while the other nonchalantly twirled a stick. I could see what they were doing, but I couldn’t believe how such complex sound came out of four hands and a few buckets.

Poet-rapper Thomas Silcott didn’t quite reach the level of Glover, DuPree or the musicians, maybe because his words got diffused in the generally overmiked mix. Silcott did have some fine moments in “The Chicago Riot Rag,” a counterpoint with DuPree in which he reads headlines from 1919 about violent deaths while she juxtaposes appeals from The Chicago Defender newspaper, urging blacks to come north: “Good jobs waiting.”

Silcott takes on a high-toned, but slightly drunk, persona in a rap about the Harlem Renaissance when assimilation was the prize and the salons were filled with “white folk chewing chitlins and black folk sipping champagne.” This number bears the searing satiric mark of George C. Wolfe, who conceived and directed the original show, elaborating on Glover’s ideas.

Theater fans know Wolfe as producer at the Public Theater and the New York Shakespeare Festival and as director of Jelly’s Last Jam and Angels in America. Early in his career, he wrote and directed The Colored Museum, a scathing satire on contemporary African-American social types.

Noise/Funk draws Wolfe’s trademark satiric blood in the Hollywood segment, where a couple of faux Nicholas Brothers in fawn-gray tuxedos perform “Now That’s Tap” with the grinning and flash moves studios demanded. Still, the brothers ended with their incomparable splits and effortless recoveries to standing positions, showing that Hollywood entertainers worked the job but surpassed its limitations.

Glover draws bitter laughter in “Uncle Huck-a-Buck & Lil’Dahlin,” a sly gloss on Shirley Temple and Bojangles, complete with thatched-roof cottage and giant daisies at the doorsill. Glover is the sunny child, his grim face visible above the curly blonde head of a shoulder-high rag doll, his feet planted inside her red slippers. Holding the doll’s arms, he mimics the older dancer’s expert moves, while an offstage baby voice (DuPree) asks, “Uncle, how come I make more money than you?”

The satiric edge of the “Taxi” quartet was lost because the dancers’ angry solos, so maddening and heartbreaking in the Broadway production, were cut short at Proctor’s. We saw the characters: Glover, Maurice Chestnut, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Marshall L. Davis Jr. as New Yorkers (home boy, college student, businesswoman, soldier), but it wasn’t clear that they were hailing cabs that invariably passed them by. For those who did catch on, the insult to the soldier carried special poignancy in these war-drenched days.

The structural heart of the show was Glover’s solo before a full-length triple mirror. He danced to his own voiceover tribute to his tap mentors, “Green, Chaney, Buster, Slyde,” matching his moves to the singular style of each of these great hoofers. Glover showed he could be smooth and gentle as Jimmy Slyde, but says he’s more like Chaney—“He was a monster.” Glover proves it, driving in extra beats the way New York City Ballet’s Damian Woetzel tosses extra hops into a jump turn.

To Glover, tap is not entertainment. It’s education and information. It’s also sensational.

Noise/Funk has a lot in common with the Works Progress Administration- sponsored Living Newspaper traveling- theater project of the Roosevelt years. The Living Newspaper taught about subjects from unionization to syphilis through a multimedia mélange of dramatic scenes, newspaper headlines, posters, songs and statistics. Noise/Funk, with its newsreellike projections and neon-lit street scenes, is a plainspoken populist history of black people and artistic expression in America. It uses a broad brush, but tells the truth. Plus, it has molten hot dance.

This road show travels well. The information in Noise/Funk, whether sung, spoken or tapped, needs to be made known.

Fiery Fusion

Ballet Hispanico
Empire Center at the Egg, June 7

New York City-based Ballet Hispanico is dedicated to interpreting, as you might guess, Hispanic culture through the medium of dance. As such, the stock in trade of this company, founded in 1970 by artistic director Tina Ramirez, is a fusion of ballet, modern and Latin dance. At the Egg, the talented 12-member troupe performed three dances offering different approaches to and perspectives on the broad topic of Hispanic culture. (The concert coincides with the company’s residency at Skidmore College through June 21; call 580-5595 for details.)

The program opened with longtime company member Pedro Ruiz’s Club Havana (2000), a dreamlike visit to a dance club in New York or Havana circa the late 1940s. The five male-female couples were dressed in tuxedos and ballroom-dance attire, complete with glittery shoes. A medley of Latin music accompanied a seamless medley of dance in Ruiz’s hazy, nostalgic portrait of another time and place. Women scissor-kicked their legs as their partners lifted them to the horn blasts of the mambo. There was some playful sexiness between two men and a woman who danced the cha cha cha. Romance and sensuality filled the air as men lifted their partners high over head and then dipped them down into elegant layback positions to the dramatic piano strains of the bolero. It was all capped off beautifully with a rhumba-congo section that owes a little something to Jerome Robbins.

The gorgeous dance was followed by Graciela Daniele’s perplexing and unnerving Cada Noche . . . Tango (1988). After seeing this full-company dance-theater drama set in a Buenos Aires dance hall/brothel in the time between the two World Wars, I think it should be renamed Tango Torture. While there’s nothing wrong with Daniele’s exploration of the seedier side life, this particular portrayal was obvious, sluggish and in need of serious editing, and contained the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen.

A bunch of down-on-their-luck dames costumed variously in corsettes and black stockings chomped on cigarettes and sat on chairs with their legs splayed apart, or slumped around as they were pursued by men. There were drunken passes made at dancing the tango, all accompanied by Astor Piazzolla’s music for accordion. The action broke for deadly long pauses where the characters shouted out names or commands to each other. The badly performed fight ensued between two men. The guys made up and took turns abusing a woman. I needed to see her flopped forward from the waist like a ragdoll and thrust at from behind by one of the guys only once to understand what was going on. Repeatedly seeing her set upon by the men turned my stomach in a way that I’ve never experienced before in a theater. The audience’s distaste was palpable as people around me squirmed and recoiled in their seats. Was the dance an indictment of machismo? Perhaps. But I don’t need to be hit over the head with it.

The company won the audience back with its final offering, Ann Reinking’s supremely likable Ritmo y Ruido (1997). Dancers were costumed in an array of sexily stylized black Lycra garb, augmented when necessary with black bowler hats, of course (think the stage version of the Chicago revival and you’re on the right track). And they pulled off the effect wonderfully, even if they did seem to run out of steam at points.

A single female with her back to the audience bathed in a circle of white-hot light set this jazzed-up romp in motion with some very well-placed hip swivels and leg-splitting high kicks. In short order, she was joined by the rest of the company, who skittered in from stage left in a big clump. They were almost amoebalike, but much less organic and way more hip. Arms shot skyward, wrists flexed and fingers splayed, knees knocked together and hips thrusted. There were variations with soloists, duets and trios. Or the company charged across the stage in succession, turning cartwheels or mopping the floor with jazz slides. It was all very Reinking-redux-of-Bob Fosse and all very much propelled by the music of Philip Hamilton and Tobias Ralph, who seemed to have used every world-beat percussion instrument possible, with percussive vocal gymnastics to match in the creation of the remarkable Afro-Cuban soundscape that accompanied the dance. The supercharged collage of movement and sound was all that was needed to bring the audience to its feet.

—Susan Mehalick


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