Savion Glover. Encore.

The king of tap… cancels.

Remembrance of things 2014…

By the looks of it, March historically has been a good month for me and the performing arts… though this March, despite having purchased tickets the day they became available, I will miss Savion Glover at Zellerbach because—*sad trombone*—he canceled. {Or as Cal Performances prefers, cancelled. British much?} Stuff happens… especially when you’re the GOAT. So in lieu of a tantrum, my notes from two years ago when last I laid eyes on the greatest tap dancer alive.

On March 14th I saw Savion Glover perform live for the seventh time in nearly twenty years. The first was at the Public Theatre in New York in 1995 in “Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk,” a tour de force recap of African American history as telegraphed, literally and figuratively, through tap. For his contributions to that show, at the tender age of 22, Glover won a Tony Award for choreography. Since then he has continued — slowly, steadily, and reverently — to redefine the boundaries of his art form, blowing multitudes of minds in the process, leaving in his wake audiences who en masse are awestruck by his genius and thereby not merely transported but transformed.

“Noise/Funk” as a whole and Glover’s lead performance had precisely that effect upon me. At the time I was pursuing a double major in English Lit and African American Studies at UC Berkeley, and to say the least “Noise/Funk” was one hell of an audiovisual aid. Its sheer historic scope, and the deftness and effectiveness with which it “went there,” astounded me. It took on a perilously complicated subject — nearly 400 years of Black people’s fraught experiences in this country — and managed to do it a surprising degree of justice. The production was utterly riveting, its star a revelation. I had never seen anything like it, and suspected, correctly, that I never would again.

Since then I have seized every opportunity to see Savion Glover live, including a second round of “Noise/Funk” after it moved to Broadway in 1996, and each time I have come away feeling compelled to write about him. For me there is nothing more intellectually invigorating or creatively inspiring than witnessing an artist at work who uncontestedly is the greatest living practitioner of his or her art. It is a rare experience because such an artist is a rare phenomenon, defined in my mind by a (yes, rare) combination of talent, skill, and innovation that raises the bar of a given genre. Toni Morrison’s historical fiction is one example. Keith Jarrett’s improvisational piano is another. Each has reinvented the language that is their creative vehicle.

Savion Glover has done the same for tap. He is nothing short of a natural wonder. To witness him in action is to become persuaded of the impossibility of any human being now inhabiting the planet or yet to arrive ever matching, let alone surpassing, his mastery of the form. He is peerless and may well remain so in perpetuity, try though he does to propagate his own prowess.

His March 14th performance at the Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium drove home this point. Glover was accompanied by his current troupe, touring as “STePz” and comprised of four additional dancers, one male and three female. Somewhat curiously there were no onstage introductions beyond the voiceover roll call that preceded the rise of the curtain, nor were the other dancers’ names (Marshall Davis, Jr., Ayodele Casel, Robyn Watson, Sarah Savelli) printed on the promotional postcard that many audience members tellingly ran out and grabbed during the intermission. Consequently, despite the fact that Glover’s four guests did themselves proud, there was a vague sensation of anonymity about them. All were utterly competent — particularly Davis, who went toe to toe with Glover dancing on a series of stair step risers spread out upstage — but when Glover himself is onstage, as he was through most of the evening, the dynamic spectacle of his kinetic energy and gravity-defying movement has the effect of blurring everyone and everything around him. When he’s doing his thing, it’s challenging to look away, let alone to care about anything else that’s happening in the room.

Ten years earlier, with his Ti Dii (pronounced “tie dye”) troupe at the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco, Glover made a ceremonious point of introducing each of his fellow hoofers mid-program. Among them was standout Michelle Dorrance, clearly teacher’s pet that night and the closest thing we have to a female Savion Glover. In 2000, onstage at the Golden Gate Theater with his legendary “Foot Notes” revue, Glover all but handed his crown over to then 10-year old Cartier Williams, whose young ankles I distinctly recall being even more articulate than his mentor’s. I simultaneously thrilled and shuddered at the idea of Williams one day being recognized as the new Glover.

For his part, Glover has embraced as his mission an objective that his “GOAT” status more or less obliges him to take on: revive (done), reinvigorate (done), preserve (in progress), and perpetuate (ongoing) a performing art that he alone has owned for a full generation. His stewardship is manifest in his breathtaking innovations as choreographer/performer, as well as his prolific teaching and mentoring activities. The latter in turn spawn other impassioned performers, teachers, mentors, and stewards of tap. Williams, who danced with Glover for more than ten years and is a studied filmmaker, is a shining example; he speaks here of his own dedication to his mentor’s project.

But Glover’s supremacy is unambiguous. No matter how much inspiration, instruction, or direction he provides — and it’s clear he teaches with the same mindful generosity he brings to his public performances — there’s no replicating his own superlative gifts. This is what makes him the most thrilling live performer I’ve ever witnessed: Only he can best himself.

Which makes me wonder whether the fairly certain impossibility of ever meeting his match, let alone being outdone, doesn’t sometimes vex him. Does being a truly singular sensation get old? Judging by the sheer joy I have witnessed the man exude when he’s performing, or for that matter simply talking about what he does, I guess not. He seems to relish his relationship — and his responsibility — to tap, and he constantly remakes and thereby elevates it out of an evident combination of intense engagement and the need to challenge himself since no one else can. Glover’s push, push, push of the envelope is a self-perpetuating golden goose, yielding golden eggs that yield more golden eggs still, like so many matryoshka dolls endlessly unpacking his seemingly inexhaustible greatness. That’s a calamity of metaphors, I know; Glover explodes my mind.

Woven into the very fabric of his being — and thus palpable during his every performance — is Glover’s thoroughgoing respect for his forebears and the continuum upon which he exists as a dancer. In fact I have found him to be so profoundly cognizant of those who came before him — dancers and musicians alike, for he himself is a living instrument — that at times I’ve imagined the presence of spirits onstage with him, conjured from the Great Beyond by his inviting and indeed irresistible reverence.

So it was on March 14th. The recorded music — jarring at first given his frequent appearances with live musicians, forgivable for the marvelously eclectic soundtrack it unleashed — was a mashup of jazz, R&B, and a few whimsical interludes including abridged versions of the “Mission Impossible” theme and a Shostakovich composition. But easily the night’s highlight for me was Glover’s soft shoe-esque solo to Sammy Davis Jr.’s plaintive rendition of “Mr. Bojangles.” The weighty historical sentiment that was packed into his five-plus minute tribute to Bill Robinson was exquisitely haunting. As he glided about the stage, his muted choreography now a backdrop to the music, I could almost sense him relinquishing the spotlight to history in order to honor it. This is the underside of Glover’s greatness, the absolute grace — physical and spiritual — with which he carries so many others forward as he goes. In this sense, he is a movement. And in this, he is revolution.

Originally published on my blog April 11, 2014. {As of this publication there is no Savion Glover tag on Medium. Boo.}