Concerto in Rhythm with Tap-Dance Revival

Dancer Ayodele Casel confers with composer Rob Kapilow. i i

Dancer Ayodele Casel confers with composer Rob Kapilow. Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR
Dancer Ayodele Casel confers with composer Rob Kapilow.

Dancer Ayodele Casel confers with composer Rob Kapilow.

Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR

A newly composed concerto for orchestra and tap dancer showcases the beauty of tap, which is enjoying a bit of a revival. Composer Rob Kapilow wrote the part of the dancer like a drum solo, without really knowing what the steps might be.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A new classical concerto premiered over the weekend in New York City. And just in case you're not in New York, we're going to play some of it for you this morning. The soloist was not playing a violin or piano. Instead, she was tap dancing.

The timing of the premier could not be better following on the heels of the hit movie "Happy Feet" and continuing a long history of some American's fascination with tap.

NPR's Jeffrey Freymann Weyr reports.

JEFFREY FREYMANN WEYR: Tap dancing has come in and out of fashion over the past century. It was a staple of Vaudeville, Broadway and Hollywood. But in recent years, it's turned up in other areas of popular culture.

(Soundbite of song "Weapon of Choice")

The memorable music video for Fat Boy Slim's song "Weapon of Choice" featured a dapper Christopher Walken tap dancing his way around a hotel lobby.

And the Omaha Nebraska indie band, Tilly and the Wall, regularly features a tap dancer as one of their percussionists.

(Soundbite of song, "Bessa")

TILLY AND THE WALL (Musical Group): (Singing) Please don't leave again. I guess I'll say it now...

WEYR: The new work by Rob Kapilow and Ayodele Casel called "Paddywak: A tap Dance Concerto" is actually the second concerto for a tap dance soloist. The first was written over 50 years ago by the classical composer Morton Gould. He'd grown up playing piano in Vaudeville and had composed musicals, so was no stranger to tap.

Mr. DANNY DANIELS (Choreographer and Dancer): Morton knew my dancing, because I was in a show that he had written the music for, it was called "Billion-Dollar Baby."

WEYR: Danny Daniels is the choreographer and dancer who premiered Gould's concerto in 1952.

Mr. DANIELS: Because I was starting to branch out into being a choreographer and I went to see him about if he had a piece of music for a piece of choreography I was working on. And I was asking him, he looked at me with and squinted his eyes and said how would you like to do a tap dance concerto with me.

(Soundbite of tap dancing)

WEYR: This is a recent recording of the Gould concerto with Lane Alexander as soloist. Danny Daniels says each dancer who performs it has had to work out their own choreography to be able to tap the rhythms correctly. Since Gould wrote it like a drum part, not specifying how any of the steps were to be done.

Mr. DANIELS: There's no way he could do that. How is he going to tell me what kind of steps to do? All he could do is write the rhythms out and expect me to do the rhythms so that they fit in with the orchestral composition he wrote.

WEYR: Composer and conductor Rob Kapilow faced the same dilemma when he decided to write a tap concerto. Three performing arts organizations, including Lincoln Center, commissioned him to write a new work for a family concert series. And as a long-time fan of tap, he couldn't resist the opportunity.

Mr. ROB KAPILOW (Composer and Conductor): Tap is a fantastic, vital, rhythmic art, and I wanted to create a place for it in a concert hall at Lincoln's Center, where it doesn't normally show up.

WEYR: Kapilow had to learn how to write for an instrument that was totally unfamiliar to him.

Mr. KAPILOW: If you write a violin concerto, we all know what a violin can do and you can go off in your room and you can write for an imaginary violin and then hand it to a soloist. But for a tap dance concerto, you don't just go off into your room and write a tap dance part.

(Soundbite of tap dancing)

WEYR: For his collaborator, Kapilow found Ayodele Casel. She's danced in Sabian Glover's company, Not Your Ordinary Tappers and taught tap for almost a decade. The two got together last spring for a brainstorming session. And while talking about what might be appealing for an audience of kids and their parents, Casel said she often used the folk tune "This Old Man" to encourage reluctant students.

Ms. AYODELE CASEL (Tap dancer): Oh, and then - what it does immediately, every single city I go, what it does immediately is that they go - they start to try it from that place of confidence of knowing that they know this, they know this music and they could somehow - they don't have to play an instrument. They could just move their feet and do that.

Mr. KAPILOW: When we had our first session and she came up with "This Old Man" and she did it, I said do "This Old Man" for me in as many different ways as you possibly can.

WEYR: And she did.

(Soundbite of tap dancing)

The composition process of "Paddywak: A Tap Dance Concerto" was underway.

Mr. KAPILOW: So what I tried to do was essentially parallel that and figure out what could I make musically that would create as many different worlds for this piece as she did.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of tap dancing)

WEYR: Since Kapilow and Casel were both traveling and performing around the country, they had to collaborate long distance.

Ms. CASEL: Basically, he taped me, worked on the music, sent me a CD of it, you know, and then I came back and said, let's not use this section. And this section is good, and some of those things you kind of put it all together. And, you know, and then gave me this CD and said here it is. Not it's your turn to work.

WEYR: The concerto, which we're hearing in rehearsal, is scored for a scaled down orchestra. It riffs on some other fundamental parts of the tap dance tradition, including the familiar shaven haircut and what's known as a hoofer's line. Basically, a chance for each dancer in a group to show off some of their best steps in turn.

When Ayodele Casel demonstrated it for Kapilow last spring, she acted as both group and soloist.

(Soundbite of tap dancing)

WEYR: In Kapilow's concerto, the hoofer's line sounds like this.

(Soundbite of music, "Kapilow's Concerto")

Kapilow says he likes the idea of starting with something familiar so that kids and grownups can see in both the dance steps and music how very simple ideas can lead to intricacy and complexity.

Mr. KAPILOW: But when you show them how much there is in a tune they already know in a way you're really opening them up to what art is all about. That it doesn't have to have fancy topics. It's not far from you, it's right there.

WEYR: There will be performances of "Paddywak: A Tap Dance Concerto" in Boston in March and Vancouver in May.

Jeffrey Freymann Weyr, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of tap dancing)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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