Artist Spotlight: Lane Alexander

You would be hard pressed to find anyone more passionate about the art of tap dance than Lane Alexander.  Founder and Director of the Chicago HumanRhythm Project , he boasts a resumé as a globe-trotting tapper that is ridiculously long and studded with accomplishments like performing at Carnegie Hall, dancing with Austin on Tap, the Candlelight Dinner Theater’s 42nd Street,  the National Tap Dance Company of Canada, as well as on noted television and film appearances.  He won a Ruth Page Award (200o) and last year was appointed Senior Advisor to the Beijing Contemporary Music Academy.  Oh, he’s also an expert on Morton Gould’s Tap Dance Concerto and designed a tap shoe for Leo’s Dancewear.  Holy cramp rolls, he’s busy! — and loving every minute of it.

Another accomplishment to add to the list is the 20th anniversary of Rhythm World a two-week extravaganza of tap that culminated in three JUBA! performances at the MCA (the MCA’s Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub is receiving a JUBA! Award for his “amazing vision and generosity”) .  The festival consisting of intensive residencies, workshops, master classes, kids programs, after-work adult courses, YTEC (youth), ProTEC (for professionals), UTEC (university student level) and ATEC (adults) wound up last weekend and was attended by students from around the world.  Saturday night’s sold-out show featured some of the masters themselves representing BAM!, Cartier Collective, Chicago Tap Theatre, Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, Jus’LisTeN and MADD Rhythms.  “This is a milestone, not just for the Human Rhythm Project, but for all baby tap institutions,” says Alexander.  “Tap dancers are starting to finally get around to the business of building infrastructure.”

RB spoke with Alexander about reaching the 20-year mark, his career and his thoughts on the future of foot drumming.

RB:  Congratulations – 20 years for the festival!  Is it 20 years for the company as well?

LA:  Well, we have a resident performance and education ensemble that is sort of like Ravinia has the orchestra in residence…in this case it’s the Human Rhythm Project that is 20 years old. The performance ensemble actually started in 2004.  The Human Rhythm Project started in 1988 as a tap and modern dance repertory company called am/FM with Kelly Michaels.  The Human Rhythm Project was just going to be one annual event of our season.  So the Project started in 1990 – Kelly passed away in 1995.  He had been very sick for many years.  Between 1990 and 1995 the repertory company got less and less busy and the Human Rhythm Project got more and more busy.  So when he passed away, the repertory company stopped and the HRP became the organization.  That’s sort of the genesis.

RB:  What made you want to put on a festival?

LA:  I had danced for a tap repertory company called Austin on Tap and a second rep company called the National Tap Dance Company of Canada in Toronto and had toured all over the world with them…and I’d done equity musical theater with 42nd Street, so I thought I knew how to tap dance.  And then I went to a tap festival in Portland, Oregon in 1988 called the Portland International Tap Dance Festival.

The two roots of tap are African and Irish.  Most of the tap that I had done came more out of the European “tap as theater” tradition as opposed to the African “tap as drumming – as music”.  Syncopation is king.  This festival I went to in Portland was really more in the African tap genre, where presentation was important, but second to the complexity of the rhythms.  Improvisation was a huge component of it, whereas the repertory companies were all about choreography.  So, it was like, “oh ok — there’s more!”.

RB:  A whole new world…

LA:  Right.  It was a whole new world — and the realization that you never know how to tap dance because it’s always evolving.  There were these amazing soloists…the human body being a mallet.  Every mallet is completely different, so they all develop techniques that are unique based on the construction of their own mallet.  So you get all these very strange tangents, with a central theme, but completely different approaches.  I think more so even than contemporary or certainly ballet, because it is very eccentric.  It’s built on the different human instruments.  It was really eye-opening and I thought, “We should have one in Chicago.”

The project (HRP) is actually to bring people together using tap dance as the vehicle.  In the late 80s, there was sort of a tap renaissance that started in the 70s…not renaissance, but a reformation in the 70s that led to a joint resolution by the US House and Senate.  In 1989 it was signed by George HW Bush…and proclaimed May 25th to be National Tap Dance Day because it’s Bill Robinson’s birthday, so celebrating the legacy of one of tap’s greatest icons, but also, for me this was the even more important part, that tap dance has roots in African and Irish cultures, and that it is a byproduct of a cultural collision and a positive byproduct.  To me, that was just it!  Between the revelation at the tap festival, the proclamation of the US House and Senate and the fact that there really wasn’t a “scene” here in Chicago helped to provide the impetus for starting it.

RB:  I love how mainstream tap is finally becoming.  When I was growing up, it was just Gregory Hines in White Nights or maybe on tv.  What is The American Rhythm Center?

LA:  This is our dream.  Generally speaking, there’s almost no infrastructure for tap dance in the United States.  You touched on it when you said White Nights, because tap dance has a life in commercial theater, whether it’s in Broadway, film, or Riverdance…it gives the impression that it’s alive and well, but there’s no structure behind it.  Those are just shows that come and go.  Whereas the modern dancers took over academia and the ballet dancers have always been supported by cultural elite – and I don’t say that in a bad way, because sometimes that is used as a put down – but the elite.  I’ve heard people say that Chicago will not be a world-class city unless we have a major ballet repertory company and that was the support that brought the Joffrey here.

The modern dancers were smart.  They said, “we are important”, they went into academia, and they created a whole national network.  Every dance program in the US is basically contemporary-based, so kids who study tap…grow up and at 18 they finish and they look around and there’s nowhere to go.  The American Rhythm Center is our plan to develop the first cultural center in the US dedicated to American tap and contemporary percussive arts and affiliated percussive dance like Irish, African, Indian Kathak, flamenco.  Almost every culture in the world has some form of foot stomping, foot drumming.  Truth be told, percussive dance is the oldest art form.  American tap is the most contemporary of all the foot stomping dances done.  If anything should be tied to a university, it should be our roots.  It would be like if every English department only taught Shakespeare.  We’re also working with a college and university, to get an academic partner to make it a more complete part of their ongoing dance curriculum either in a dance or music department, because we really belong in music as much as we do in dance.  It’s about rhythmic composition, not just special composition.

I’m senior advisor to the Beijing Contemporary Music Academy and I’m going there two more times this year and I’ll be there four months next year.  I’m working with the ministry of culture and the ministry of education to create a formal curriculum for teaching tap dance in China!  They’re in the central planning for now, so I will develop the curriculum for China.  We don’t have a curriculum for tap in the United States.  It’s so much an oral tradition still,  which is an impediment for building an institution.  There’s so much work to be done.

RB:  Do you have an estimate for when the center will come to fruition?

LA:  Our recently completely strategic plan – it is board approved – is between three and five years.

RB:  Do you have a location?

LA:  We have what may be the first phase of the center, which is sort the capacity-building phase where we open a school and develop a large student base which will generate a revenue base that allows us to also start a capitol campaign and move on to the cultural center idea.

RB:  Please tell me a little about the Gould piece.

LA:  The tap dance concerto?  It was written in 1952.  It was composed by Morton Gould.  He worked with a tap dancer named Danny Daniels who is still alive and lives in Los Angeles.  They did collaborate to a certain extent.  Gould relied on him to provide certain rhythmic motifs and incorporated it into the score.  There are four movements.  It’s built along the lines of a classic concerto.  Just like a violin or piano concerto and the tap dancers is treated like a snare drum.  All of the rhythms were notated.  There is a cadenza in the first movement, which gives the artist a chance to improvise.  Gould said that for the rest of the piece, so long as the rhythmic conversation, or point/counterpoint and sometimes doing the exactly same rhythm as the orchestra is doing…so long as you don’t rupture that, you can improvise within the whole piece.  Mostly you wanted to display the tap dancer as a musician.

RB:  When was the last time you performed it?

LA:  I still do it.  I did it last year a couple of times with different orchestras.  Although I’m getting to the point where I’m teaching it to a couple of members of BAM! because some of it is really…there are leaps and turns, especially the leaps…it doesn’t feel like it used to.  It can be modified.

RB:  And you received a Ruth Page Award?

LA:  It’s hanging on my wall.  It was for Outstanding Contribution to the Field.  It was for the work related to the Human Rhythm Project.

RB:  And you designed a tap shoe — the Concerto — for Leo’s.  I assume it was named after the piece you’re famous for.  How did that come about?

LA:  For the most part, tap shoes are designed to meet the needs of dance studios that go to competitions and stand on their toes, etc.  A lot of times they’re designed for dancers to point their toes instead of the quality of sound that the shoe produces and the durability of the shoe for serious dancers.  I felt there was a large and growing group of tap dancers that weren’t being served by the product.  The shoes didn’t sound good.  So I went to Leo’s Dancewear and talked to them about developing a shoe that was actually an instrument.

RB:  Regular taps or jingle?

LA:  Regular.

RB:  Thank you for justifying my preference.  Who were your idols growing up?

LA:  I started tap dance as a little boy, when I was eight, I only did it for a year and then studied drumming with my stepfather.  So I was really more of a trained percussionist than a tap dancer. When I was in college, I decided to go back to dance.  It wasn’t like I was dancing for all of my formative years and was in that culture, so my tap idols really didn’t happen until I was older.  Donald O’Connor.  I thought he was absolutely underrated and overshadowed by other people of the time.  I thought he was a brilliant dancer as well as performer and comedian.  In his dance there was humor.

RB:  The “Make ‘Em Laugh” scene from Singin’ in the Rain

LA:  It was all about Donald O’Connor.  In terms of more contemporary artists, I’d say Diane Walker and Sam Weber, who have been with the festival every year for twenty years.  They’re both being honored this year with our JUBA! Award.  Diane is being awarded because of her impeccable phrasing and tone and elegance, and Sam because, I think more than anybody, he really has taken a technical idea and taken it so far out.  He took the whole field to an entirely different place because of his technique.  He just developed this amazing minimalist technique of really extend and release and the number of notes that can be achieved by this relaxation and hip manipulation.  It really is a technique and it’s being emulated all over the world.

RB:  Who were some of your percussion idols?

LA:  Buddy Rich.

RB:  What exactly does your appointment in Beijing entail?

LA:  It’s a ten-year appointment as a senior advisor to develop a four-year comprehensive curriculum for a university.  After that the development for high school and elementary and then, if I’m still engaged at that point, to help to create something for the general public just for fun.

RB:  Is there a tap culture in China?

LA:  There absolutely is.  Some movies made it through the censor.  Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson’s movies made it through – Fred Astaire’s were not.  Nobody there knows who Fred Astaire is.  Just like what happened in China happened in other parts of the world and the movies became source material.  It’s sort of like seeing this much of a painting and basing a whole technique on that little picture.  I think some of the most interesting work is being done in South America and Europe.

RB:   Why?

LA:  I think they are more steeped in their own cultural traditions and they’re multi-dimensional artists.  Right now American tap dancers are obsessed with rhythm and the complexity of the rhythm.  I think some of the South American artists bring a lot more theatrical craft to the form.  Big ideas and they’re sort of post-modern tap.

RB:  What is your favorite tap step?

LA: (Laughing)  I don’t think I’ve discovered it yet.  I’m still finding new things.  I found a new tap…what class was I torturing?…it was Tuesday night and I found a new push-drop-pull that I’d never done before.  It’s kind of funky physically, but I think when I practice it and get it up to speed, it’s going to be really cool.

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