Preview: Ground-breaking Savion Glover taps into his dance heroes for NBAF’s “SoLe Sanctuary”

Glover is seen by many as the best contemporary tap dancer.
Glover is seen by many as the best contemporary tap dancer.
Glover is seen by many as the best contemporary tap dancer.
Glover is seen by many as the best contemporary tap dancer. (Photos courtesy Savion Glover Productions)

Dancer-choreographer Savion Glover has transformed tap from cheery Broadway and movie entertainment into a wide-ranging, ever-evolving art form, closer in spirit to McCoy Tyner and Jackson Pollock than Fred Astaire. He favors personal expression and innovation over the rote time steps and combinations many of us learned as kids. The result is unique, contemporary, groundbreaking and brilliant. His mentor, the tap legend Gregory Hines, once described him as “possibly the best tap dancer that ever lived.” 

Atlanta will have a rare opportunity to see Glover’s extraordinary talents on Sunday when he performs his 2011 work SoLe Sanctuary at the Rialto Center for the Arts as part of the 2015 National Black Arts Festival. Marshall Davis Jr. will perform with him.    

SoLe Sanctuary is Glover’s tribute to his mentors and many of America’s tap legends. He says it gives audiences an opportunity “to witness our gratitude and appreciation” for tappers such as Hines, Jimmy Slyde, Sammy Davis Jr., Charles “Honi” Coles, Lon Chaney and many others. 

Glover will also give a master class on Saturday.
Glover will also give a master class on Saturday.

The set for SoLe Sanctuary is not what you’d expect. It includes an altar of votive candles and a guy sitting quietly on stage, meditating. Glover says the meditator’s presence has several meanings. “I want to introduce the idea of meditating to the sounds of the dance,” he says. “The meditator also represents people watching over us. It could be the soul of Jimmy Slyde or the angel of Gregory Hines. Just having the person there gives me a sense of peace and also reminds me of these great men. And I often fall into a state of meditation when I dance.”

For all his talent, Glover is often lost in his own process on stage; gaze lowered, arms dangling loosely while his feet hammer, stamp, flutter and stab the floor. Also on set are large photos of Hines, Slyde and Davis, and a pair of red tap shoes designed for Hines by the dance shoe manufacturer Capezio.

Candles and meditation aside, SoLe Sanctuary is a tour de force of sound and invention. Using his body as an exquisitely tuned instrument, Glover creates symphonies of sound that rival the riffs and complexities of the finest jazz musicians.

He admits that not everything he does is original. “I have stolen many steps from my mentors — about five from each guy — and I have several I consider favorites,” he explains. He often starts out with movement phrases created by his heroes before moving into his own distinct style. 

Glover’s more playful and outgoing side was evident in his earlier work: the Broadway musicals Jelly’s Last Roll and Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, for which he won a Tony Award as Best Choreographer in 1996. He tapped for Mumble, the penguin in the animated film Happy Feet. In 1992, he was the youngest person ever to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Glover has been quoted as saying he wants to put tap back into the contemporary black context. Given that, I asked him about his reaction to the recent horrific events in the black community — the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and others.

“Every generation has its own level of abuse and injustice,” he said. “This is nothing new. Then, it was dogs and water hoses; now, kids just get shot. Audiences of all creeds and colors used to go see Sammy Davis Jr., and because they were being entertained they could forget for those two hours what was going on [in the world]. It’s the same thing with me now. I can give someone the privilege of coming to the theater and forgetting the negativity.” 

Only once did Glover bring the outside world into his art. The Trayvon Martin shooting occurred two days before he was scheduled to perform at the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C. He turned the performance into a memorial for Martin.  

A conversation with Glover will take place after his July 19 performance at the Rialto. He’s also scheduled to teach a master class on Saturday at the High Museum of Art as part of the Youth Empowerment Series of the day-long symposium, “Dance Across the Diaspora: A Historical Lens on a Black Cultural Movement.”

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