WATERTOWN -- This weekend's Beantown Tapfest made it resoundingly clear -- tap dance is alive and kicking in Boston. Enthusiastic fans flocked to workshops and packed the house for Friday night's "On Tap!" showcase highlighted by the reunion of hometown boy Derick Grant, Michelle Dorrance, and Aaron Tolson in their first appearance together since "Imagine Tap!"
The lively, well-paced show, produced by beloved teacher/performer Julia Boynton, also included two new companies: the Japanese troupe Zen and Tolson's New England Tap Ensemble (N.E. Tap). The latter troupe of 10 dancers ranging from adults to young teens sailed through crisp footwork with polish and verve, making it all look easy and, most importantly, fun. Throughout the night, their impeccably rehearsed dances displayed solid training, poise, and an infectious enthusiasm. Kelly Kaleta and Suzanne Bouffard were standouts, Kaleta for her smooth, cool stylings and Bouffard for her effervescent pizzazz.
The members of Tokyo-based Zen -- Takahiro Kobayashi, Shoko Taniguchi, and Dai Omiya -- have a more raw approach to the dance form. Under the tutelage of Grant, they are centering their artistry on the driving New York style of tap developed by Savion Glover, feet pounding the floor in sharp, syncopated rhythms that don't just fill the music, but create a counterpoint of their very own. Yet they could also change tempo and dynamic on a dime, with small, light steps and slides that seemed to barely graze the floor.
But it was the star performers who really tore up the floor, displaying not only technical flair but rhythmic and sculptural imagination. Dorrance is a marvel. The most riveting moment of the evening was the beginning of her solo "Sissy Strut." Danced in total darkness, one could hear the music in her feet, complicated rhythms at blistering speed infused with a remarkable range of tonal color, from delicate fill to thundering smackdowns. She's the whole package. Tall and lanky, she can ease through combinations with loose-limbed rubberiness or erupt into jagged angles, limbs flying in all directions. And her upper body isn't just along for the ride. It's totally in the game, whether hunched over as feet pound the floor or sailing atop slides and glides that look as if they're floating on air. Trading fours with the musicians (the excellent Herman Hampton Quartet) showcased her vivid sense of rhythmic invention.
Dorrance and Grant, an original member of "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk," danced a lovely, elegant soft shoe, their playful rhythmic conversation like whispered endearments. In another duet back and forth, Grant stops after one particularly tasty riff by Dorrance to ask her to "Say that again." Yes, sir.
Grant's solo (complemented by a routine dedicated to "Grammy" by his young children) shows how the firebrand creates the beat of a different drummer, defying easy grooves to explode into punchy tattoos using every part of the foot. Tolson, a featured soloist with "Riverdance," is more grounded, yet isn't afraid to take moves off balance, with flamboyant skitters and slides across the floor. And as is often the tradition with tap revues, the show ended with a lively shim sham finale that brought all the dancers out onstage and pulled the audience to its feet.