Adding emotional dimension to musicality and skill

On Wednesday evenings in Smalls Jazz Club, you'll find eager New York tap dancers waiting to take a turn improvising with the house band. If you're lucky, Warren Craft will be among them. An uncanny performer who uses every inch of his rangy body, Craft can create tempestuous flurries of sound, his upper body twisting like a child throwing a tantrum. But he's just as likely to resist the urge to move, holding his weight suspended on his heels, elbows pulled up like a marionette, until he collapses in a rhythmic stutter.

Though only 20, Craft performs like a veteran. Long recognized for his impeccable skill and sophisticated musicality, lately Craft has transformed. His virtuosic technique is now informed by emotional vulnerability and artistic experimentation. “His personal style has grown leaps and bounds in the past two years," says Michelle Dorrance, the artistic director of Dorrance Dance, which has been showcasing Craft's talents. “There's no one on the planet who dances like him."

As a young child in Poughkeepsie, New York, Craft began taking ballet at 8 and added tap classes soon after with David Rider, who helped him build a strong foundation of classic tap technique. When Rider went on tour, Craft's parents began shuttling him to New York City to study privately with Ayodele Casel, a star of the rhythm tap scene. “She taught more about music and improvisation," says Craft. “Some days we'd just listen to music the whole time."

Then he began studying at the American Tap Dance Foundation—a New York City tap hub directed by Tony Waag—and joined their student repertory ensemble. ATDF offered Craft invaluable experience working with top tap dancers such as Barbara Duffy, Brenda Bufalino and Dorrance. It also provided a host of performance opportunities. In 2006, Craft performed at the foundation's annual summer festival, Tap City. Tony Waag and tap dancer Tony Mayes sang Neil Young's “Old Man," while Craft—then 12 years old—danced. It was a pivotal experience. “They led me in an interesting direction with such a mature song," he says. “I saw how much greater a reaction I could get if I understate my ability and think of myself as an artist rather than an entertainer."

As he was making strides in tap, Craft continued to study ballet, training at the School of American Ballet and then American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. But as the demands on his time became unmanageable, he had to choose a path. “I felt like ballet school was really stifling to my creative energy," he says. Today, he seems to have shed any remnants of the form. “A lot of ballet dancers can't let go," says Duffy. “To me, Warren looks like a tap dancer, and that's not always easy to accomplish."

Once he refocused his training, Craft sought out new ways of moving—and found inspiration in butoh, a Japanese dance-theater form. In 2009 and 2010 he took butoh workshops at CAVE, in Brooklyn. Butoh also inspired a new look. “I felt I had broken free of something," Craft says. “I trained my body to move not like anything I had seen before, but just to express. I really want to continue to where my body can do whatever I'm feeling in my head." And he wanted the outside to match the inside. He shaved his head and accumulated a collection of piercings, including a small bullring in his nose.

Craft's metamorphosis has recently been on display with Dorrance Dance. When the company debuted its first full-length piece, SOUNDspace, he was featured in a memorable solo. Wearing leather-soled shoes, Craft articulated quiet rhythms made all the more resonant by his dynamic body. He'll perform with the company this year at the Spoleto Festival and at Jacob's Pillow.

Duffy and Dorrance say they'd be curious to see what Craft's choreography would look like. For the moment, Craft simply wants to keep growing as a performer. In addition to his dancing, he hopes to forge a music career (he plays drums and also sings). Whatever he does, it will undoubtedly be distinctive. “He's not trying to be like anyone else," says Duffy. “He's finding his voice."

Photos of Craft performing at the Tap City 2013 gala by Amanda Gentile.

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