Classical Savion

From Nov. 8 to Nov. 13, critically acclaimed tap dancer and choreographer Savion Glover made his Orange County debut at UC Irvine’s Barclay Theatre with his groundbreaking show entitled ‘Classical Savion.’

For an artist who has been hailed for his extensive contributions to the genre of tap dancing, the Barclay performance reflected a type of innovation that moved the medium forward by looking to music of the past.

‘Classical Savion’ is an extraordinary piece of performance work. Glover is the only dancer in the show and is accompanied by a 10-piece string orchestra, featuring classical musicians from around the world.

For those unfamiliar with Glover’s work, he has had a long and fruitful career, starting at age 12 on Broadway as the title character in ‘The Tap Dance Kid.’ At 18 he played opposite fellow tap-dancing great Gregory Hines in ‘Jelly’s Last Jam.’

It was in 1996 that Glover was able to shine as both dancer and choreographer in the show he co-created, ‘Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk,’ for which he received a Tony Award for Best Choreographer. At only 31, he is considered to be one of the greatest living tap-dancers still performing.

This particular show’s setup is designed to highlight Glover’s performance. The orchestra is spread across up stage, behind a small raised platform where Glover marks his place of performance. On stage left and right of the platform sit a drum set and grand piano, respectively, which remain unattended for the first two-thirds of the show, only to be utilized in the exciting last portion of the evening.

The pieces that were selected for ‘Classical Savion’ would be regarded as fairly traditional, composed by greats ranging from Bach to Vivaldi. There definitely was not anything too radical or experimental, which added a rich contrast to Glover’s more improvisation-based, modern style of dancing.

The orchestra played extremely well and would have passed for a more than impressive orchestral performance on its own. But Glover’s contribution adds an entirely new element to the music.

Glover’s performance in the first two-thirds of the show is more of a percussive contribution. It was as if an inventive drummer played with a talented orchestra, but the only pieces of percussion he used were his feet.

On a technical level, Glover would leave most audience members awestruck, in terms of his speed, his versatility and complexity with rhythms, and his sheer physical ability to tap dance almost nonstop for two hours.

His interpretations of the classical songs offer a more beat-oriented version of the pieces, comparable to the way a DJ might remix a traditional song. But the live element of tapping along with complexity of the rhythms make this type of interpretation much more innovative and organic, in that after a while it is difficult to imagine some of the songs without Glover’s input.

About two-thirds into the show, Glover leaves the stage, at which point a bassist not in the original 10-piece lineup, Andy McCloud comes out on the stage. McCloud improvises on his stand-up bass for a while before transitioning into a steady groove that he continues for almost the rest of the show.

At this point, Glover enters the stage again and proceeds to improvise with McCloud’s bass as well.

After McCloud, Musical Director Thomas James enters the stage and follows suit on piano, followed by saxophonist and flautist Patience Higgens. Both separately improvise with Glover after being introduced. Finally, drummer Brian Grise comes onstage and completes the traditional jazz combo, again taking his moment to shine with McCloud’s droning line the background. The Grise-Savion session was particularly satisfying for anyone who enjoys percussion. Both musicians are extremely rhythmically talented and together are almost overwhelming in how good they are.

Once the combo is established, Glover proceeds to introduce every member of the 10-piece orchestra by name and instrument and improvises with them briefly. This portion of the performance is very interesting, creating a bridge between the classical portion and the jazz-funk aspects of Glover’s dancing.

It was clear that Thomas, McCloud and Grise are jazz-based musicians, but when the members of the orchestra, who clearly came from a more traditionally classical style of musical training, a journey-like arc was created in the performance. It was as if during the first two-thirds of the show Glover was on classical territory, showing the genre what he could offer, while in the last third he was inviting his orchestra to join him in the jazz-funk-improvisational territory and try to keep up.

Though none of the members quite compared to the jazz trio in terms of improvisational skill, their approach to the style was both entertaining and interesting to watch