Smith and company dazzle with technique
BECKET - Among many exciting moments during tap artist Jason Samuels Smith’s performance with his company A.C.G.I. (“Anybody Can Get It’’) on Thursday at Jacob’s Pillow, one stood out because it also touched the heart. Everyone else had done a solo turn and was off making a costume change. Samuels Smith, premier dancer and chief choreographer, stepped onto the company’s long, narrow platform of a stage and quickly showed his virtuosity in a dense, fast, explosive style, as if he were determined to fit twice as many steps into a second as anyone ever had.
Then the man playing congas behind him came in, and it became a duet as each traded on the other’s rhythms. The dancer would do something wild, more free-form, and the older man would smile. Knowing the drummer, JoJo Smith, was the dancer’s father and a former dancer himself (Samuels Smith had introduced him), you thought, “Ah, this was how it must have been 20 years ago, when his son was trying his first steps.’’
Samuels Smith, 28, has done a lot of performing, much of it solo, since he made his Broadway breakthrough 13 years ago in “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,’’ as understudy for the lead dancer, Savion Glover. In 2001, Smith created A.C.G.I. with four dancers who frequented the Debbie Allen Dance Studio in Los Angeles. From their workshopping, under Smith’s eye, they’ve come up with a program of 16-plus numbers, each about five minutes long. Among them were six world premieres.
The program, which is subject to change each night, was well put together. The dancers (Chloe Arnold, Sarah Reich, Melinda Sullivan, and newcomer Lee Howard) were all brilliant solo improvisers. There were fine musical interludes by the supporting jazz trio, as well as two short rap numbers by Smith’s young cousin, Ahmad Rashad Jr.
What did not vary much was Smith’s dance vocabulary. This was almost all below the knee, and it was preoccupied with athletically subdivided and shifting rhythms. In the first piece, “Bar Hopping,’’ which was one of the premieres, the dance changed meter constantly and suddenly - from 6/5 to 4/4 to 5/4 - and the dancers made those shifts in unison. This Olympic feat was actually too fine-grained for the rhythmic outline to be perfectly clear (at least to the average ear). The problem with pure athleticism is it becomes all about perfection.
Expression is about something else, and one waited for glimpses of a vision beyond mere technique. There was a story line in the final dance, “Peace of Mind,’’ in which a street confrontation was sublimated into a dance “battle’’ - reflecting tap’s origins - with improvised trading, leading to a lightning-fast unison section (performed very tightly), followed by hugs and peace signs. Not an original story, but it added a welcome dimension.
The company’s 24-by-8-foot stage (Gregory Hines’s old touring stage) is not wide enough to allow for the dancers to spread out. In “Time to Step,’’ a 2007 piece, they actually bumped into each other (and not expressively) as Smith experimented with patterns other than a straight line. An emotional message more complex than teenage “battling’’ will involve closer interrelationships among the dancers - and take up more space. Can you have bigger forms and story lines in a dance style that is based on improvisation and microsteps? Yes. Others have done it, and one looks forward to seeing how this company will do it.