New Jersey Tap Ensemble Memorial Auditorium, Montclair State University Montclair, NJ November 5, 2004 Reviewed by Karyn D. Collins
At a time when even the most established dance companies are struggling to survive or folding altogether, celebrating a 10th anniversary is a milestone. For the New Jersey Tap Ensemble, the achievement, celebrated with a gala concert, “The Next Step,” marked a major happening in both New Jersey’s dance community and the larger tap community.
Artistic director Deborah Mitchell founded her company based on her experiences as a protégée of hoofer Leslie “Bubba” Gaines, as part of the Rhythm Queens tap duo with Germaine Goodson, and as a performer in the film The Cotton Club and Broadway’s Black and Blue.
The gala featured the 14-member main company, a group of 20 teenagers, and a trio of young children in a revue-style mélange of energetic group numbers. Repertory staples dominated the program, including Mitchell’s Jersey Bounce, a stylish ensemble number patterned after Black and Blue. It showed off the company’s panache and facility with the major tenets of rhythm tap, from stop time to flashy, vaudeville-flavored moves. Although entertaining, many of these works revealed a sameness that made one long for more daring explorations. Mitchell’s Moon Suite, though, offered a refreshing change with its polyrhythmic celebration of the song “How High the Moon.”
Mitchell performed a brief but touching tribute to her mentor that included her re-creation of Gaines’ celebrated jump-rope tap act and a solo of shimmering subtlety to a song he often performed to, “Begin the Beguine.”
Joining the festivities was a trio of guest artists, all noted performers who call the ensemble home—Karen Callaway Williams, Maurice Chestnut, and Parris Mann. Their solos, besides emphasizing the individual artistry and personality that are integral to rhythm tap, shed light on this company’s role as an incubator for young talent.
Sharing the stage with the celebration of the past was a nod to the group’s future. Savion Glover’s work-in-progress for the company took the stage in a segment aptly called Unfolding a New Work. Its intricate rhythms—from swing to hip hop—and sudden bursts of individual flourishes served as an intriguing harbinger of the company’s next step.
My best running buddy was on my left. To my right, a total stranger with whom I'd suddenly become competitive. As the 15-person group headed into a two-minute push, the instructor got hyped, and the remix blasting Rihanna's "We Found Love" transitioned to "Smooth Criminal."