Nature's way

The atmospheric Jazz and Tap Odyssey
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  February 18, 2009

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EVOKING THE GREAT OUTDOORS with live jazz, live hoofing, and spoken text.

Despite a renewed appreciation for tap dance in recent years — both its musical percussive possibilities and its versatility in creating a narrative — it might still come as a surprise to many dance fans that a full-length concert of tap and jazz would be devoted to themes from nature. Off the Beaten Path: A Jazz and Tap Odyssey comes to Roberts Hall, Rhode Island College on February 21 at 7:30 pm to prove it can be done.

Director/choreographer/dancer Drika Overton and composer Paul Arslanian have collaborated with renowned tappers Brenda Bufalino and Josh Hilberman to assemble a program of pieces that weave together live jazz, live hoofing, and spoken text to evoke a sense of place and spirit in the great outdoors.

"It begins with Big Bang music, very atmospheric," explained Overton in a phone conversation from her home in southern Maine. "It goes from tranquil harmony in the environment to things falling apart to the fact that we all need to pull together. We're not trying to convey a message per se, but let's just remember how beautiful this world is and let's take care of it."

Because Overton lives near the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, the group was inspired to re-examine her nature writings, portions of which they use in the show. They also draw on other nature texts, a Teddy Roosevelt quote about the Grand Canyon, and Woody Guthrie's anthem "This Land Is Your Land." Arslanian has created an original score, with the exception of two pieces contributed by Bufalino: "Flying Turtles" and "Haitian Fight Song."

"There's a lot of imagery Paul tries to conjure, such as seasons, elements — water, fire, wind — times of the day, cycles," Overton reflected. "He's worked with tap dancers for most of his career, and he's always had a love for the dance form. That's been a big gift for us, because he really understands it and loves writing music for tap dancers."

Overton, Arslanian, Bufalino, and Hilberman have had a working collaboration for almost 10 years; they presented Clara's Dream: A Jazz Nutcracker around New England venues and The Vaudeville Music Hall Follies in 2003 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. When they were asked to design a smaller, more portable show, they turned their attention to this nature-themed program. Although they have hired five other musicians and dancers to join their four-member ensemble in performing Off the Beaten Path, each of these four has multiple talents. Arslanian sometimes steps away from keyboards to tap; tapper Hilberman may take a turn on drums, concertina, or ukulele; tapper Bufalino also performs spoken word; and tapper Overton sometimes sits in on drums and stand-up bass.

"We try to mix it up," she emphasized. "We like to integrate the music and the dance into one. There's a point at which the musicians get up and dance, but we also think of tap dance as playing music, as a visual manifestation of the music."

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