JOSH HILBERMAN: After some modest opening remarks, he became the zany tap wizard he really is.
Dancers do a lot of talking about their work these days. This can be disarming and engaging as a lead-in to a performance, but it seldom gives away any secrets. Josh Hilberman MC’d his own one-man tap show, Heeling Powers: Rhythms of the Left Brain, last Saturday at the Regent Theatre in Arlington. Except for the loud plaid tuxedo jacket, he looked ordinary when he first came out — 40ish, slightly stocky, with a sparse crewcut. He could have been a businessman or a butcher. But after modest opening remarks, he became the zany tap wizard he really is, dancing in half a dozen styles with costumes of ever-escalating weirdness, mostly in dialogue with the redoubtable Paul Arslanian’s jazz piano.
After a low-key opener with the Barhoppers trio (Hilberman, Little Rose Giovanetti, and Dr. Venus the Tap Dancing Neuropathologist) things swung into gear. Hilberman, now in a turquoise dinner jacket with black lapels, strummed a ukulele and got the audience to whistle “Sweet Georgia Brown” to his tapped obbligato.
Hilberman may be a clown, but he’s no hayseed. In a three-part improvisation on Charlie Parker tunes, riffing with Arslanian in bebop, blues, and mambo moods, he got down to business. With the inventive pleasure of all great tappers, he can throw a complex tornado of steps into the ground, but he can also fling a leg out in space to suspend the beat, or skim bodily across distances without suppressing the rhythmic storm that’s going on in his feet.
Reminiscing between numbers about a lifetime of teachers and fellow hoofers, he acknowledged the distinguished Paul Draper, who combined tap with the step vocabulary of ballet, doing a re-creation of Draper’s Tea for Two. After the grounded Charlie Parker numbers, it was amazing to see Hilberman hurling out leaps, cabrioles, pas de bourrée, and pirouettes, within a cascade of intricate rhythms. He didn’t exactly look balletic, but you’d never have expected the lightness.
He also paid tribute to one of his early mentors, Brenda Bufalino, who was in the audience. After Hilberman had nagged her for a long time, she finally gave him one of her solo dances, Buff’s Bop (1987). “Jo Sterling told me, ‘You wanna sound like Brenda Bufalino? You have to loosen your taps,’ ” Hilberman said, changing his shoes. Buff’s Bop showed off the charged, exuberant Bufalino style.
Besides all this, the evening recapped some Hilberman favorites. In Three Wing Circus (2003), he danced on three big drumheads, sprinting from one to the other as if they were ice floes. In The Warrior (2002), he pounded out body rhythms on a suit of chain mail and a dance belt made of taps. Once in a while, in a fever of barefoot kinetics, he’d slip into a harem girl’s shimmy, but he quickly reverted to his primitive self. To ragtime, he twinkled his newest work, High Heelberman, in two-inch Mary Janes, the classic shoes for a little girl’s dancing class.