Last year, tap dancer Savion Glover received a Bessie Award –– the dance and performance equivalent of a Tony or an Oscar –– for music composition. He defines himself as a hoofer, and his preoccupation is with the sounds he’s making. That’s how devoted he is to the acoustic aspect of his tapping. In the past, in fact, he’d often turn his back on the audience and face his musicians, as if he were just another member of the band.
In his new show “STePz,” at the Joyce through July 6, he’s more presentational. He and his terrific crew are clearly performing for us. Occasionally, Glover even breaks into a full grin, because he’s having such a good time. It’s hard to believe he’s been at it for three decades; he still looks like a skinny teenager.
Glover clearly has nerve connections in his feet that normal mortals must not have. In one solo, he stands in a two-foot square of light at one corner of the amplified platform they dance on. He’s virtually motionless, but you gradually become aware of a soft ratchet-like sound, like a snare drum, that slowly increases in volume.
You realize that it’s his right toe tapping the floor at unbelievable speed. For minutes, the toe tremble continues, as his body makes slight balance shifts. It’s a tap step that others do, but Glover takes it to extremes of endurance and control that turn it into a summer rainfall, a rumbling, far-off locomotive –– not just a show of skill but poetic metaphor.
The show has all the entertainment elements of a good old-fashioned tap dance recital but also the artistry that Glover uniquely brings to the form. For instance, he and guest artist Marshall Davis, Jr. skitter up and down in perfect unison on two three-stair pyramids at opposite sides of the stage. They’re connected by the beat of Lalo Schifrin’s unforgettable “Mission Impossible” theme song. It’s a stunt that Bill “Bojangles” Robinson immortalized in the movies and lots of vaudeville tappers adopted. Glover gives it new life.
In the opening number, Glover, Marshall, and “3 Controversial Women” (Ayodele Casel, Sarah Savelli, and Robyn Watson) tap long phrases in perfect unison to John Coltrane’s “Miles Mode.” Trane’s saxophone is in just the right register to accompany the tapping without obscuring the crystal clear rhythms of 10 gifted dancing feet. Between the ensemble passages, solos illustrate individually each dancer’s deft footwork.
Later in Act One, the music goes from Charlie Parker’s “Dexterity” to Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Shasta.” Glover’s skillful rhythmic counterpoint amplifies whatever style of music he chooses, and the irregular time signatures and odd phrasings of the Russian contemporary piece are no impediment to his sophisticated rhythmic flow.
After intermission, the women take to the stairs, ala Hollywood movie musicals –– a three-stair unit, upstage center. Benny Goodman’s “Bugle Call Rag” recalls the girl groups of the ‘40s, the Andrews or Boswell Sisters, entertaining the troops in World War II. How can they be so casual and yet so rhythmically crisp? Although they’re physically very diverse, the women are connected by flawless unison, and every time they slip in a quick little one-two-three canon, it catches your breath.
Drew DeCorleto’s lighting design is simple but as precise as the dancing, drawing patches on the floor where the dancers are and changing the texture of the rear brick wall with the mood.
Glover’s solo version of the Sammy Davis, Jr. perennial “Mr. Bojangles” dissolves all the cliché we’ve brought to that number over the years. His forthright, upright simplicity and understatement make it fresh as the first time. Glover doesn’t slam the floor with his taps –– he caresses it, massages it, tickles it in a surprising array of different textures. With metal against wood, Glove elicits a range of emotions similar to Yo-Yo Ma on his cello, Eric Ohlsson on his oboe, or Jonathan Watts on piano.
And after the feel-good finale, Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” they take a simple bow, and the curtain falls in mid-ovation. It’s as if they’re still having a tapping party onstage, out of our sight, as we float joyously into the night.
SAVION GLOVER | “STePz” | Joyce Theater | 175 Eighth Ave. at 19th St. | Through Jul. 6; Tue.-Wed., Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m.; no show on Jul. 4 :$10-$59 at joyce.org or 212-242-0800