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Nature's way

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

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."

But how does tap dance represent what is often thought of as a quiet place: the natural world? "You can imagine percussive elements, like a tree limb breaking," Overton replied. "Tap is another voice — we see tap dance as a voice of expression. Certainly counterpoint rhythms make sense to me in relation to nature. Sounds from the outdoors — there's a lot of bird references."

Indeed, one of Bufalino's one-person shows is titled Journals of a Woodpecker. She founded the American Tap Dance Orchestra in 1986 and has been a leader in the renaissance of tap. Arslanian first performed with tap dancers in 1974, and he was musical director for the "Fascinating Rhythms" tour of the Boston Dance Umbrella in the mid-'90s.

Hilberman danced with many of the old-style hoofers and has taught at festivals and universities across Europe and the States, including Roger Williams University. Overton produced the Portsmouth Percussive Dance Festival for many years.

So wrap your mind around the shushing of a soft-shoe or the syncopated clicking of a time step, and you'll hear the clacking of waves over stones or the whoosh of water over sand. You'll realize that tap dance is much more than slapping and stomping. And Off the Beaten Path will show you many more dance incarnations of the natural world.

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