at the Harold Washington Library, May 20 and 21

The “Future Movement” in the name of their group would be funny if Lane Alexander and Kelly Michaels didn’t seem to wish so desperately that it were true. There’s nothing new, let alone futuristic, about their styles of tap and jazz. Michaels’s choreography exudes a stale, musty air, and Alexander’s tap rhythms don’t feel much fresher. Both are trying to keep alive a style of popular dance that went out when Elvis Presley came in. And neither seems to understand that it can never truly live again.

Michaels is enamored of that smooth, swaying style that flourished in the 30s and 40s–Fred Astaire, top hats, easy elegance–but he never quite captures it. Instead he imitates, and his imitation feels faded and sadly artificial, like a honky-tonk hotel that aspires to grandeur.

His opening piece, Facades, Facets, Phases & Dreams, is a sentimental attempt to explore the inner lives of three people. We’re supposed to know them by their clothes, I guess. One woman wears a fur coat and sequined evening gown: she’s the sad rich lady. She dances a solo that vaguely suggests loneliness and longing. Another woman wears a bright yellow blouse and a purple skirt; from her movement, it seems she’s the overworked executive. A man in a black leather jacket, T-shirt, and jeans later changes into a clown costume, which he then removes to dance a solo that looks and feels a lot like the sad rich lady’s solo. What he’s supposed to be, I don’t know.

I think Michaels’s problem is that he tries to give meaning and artistic depth to a vocabulary that can only be pop at best. His choreography has been danced a thousand times before. It’s filled with the arabesques, pirouettes, and pas de bourree taught in any dance class. He doesn’t modify them to make them his own, he just combines them in predictable ways and then uses shallow music and cheap costumes to tell the story.

The title of Michaels’s solo, Four Duets Danced Alone, suggests potential, but the execution falls flat: Michaels dances in an annoyingly pretentious way. He carries himself as if his movement has deep meaning, but he communicates nothing. Vivaldi Challenge, danced by three people in jock gear to Vivaldi’s Concerto in C for Two Trumpets and Strings, is interesting until it becomes clear that the dancers are doing the same thing they did in Michaels’s other dances but are dressed differently.

Alexander at least seems to acknowledge that tap is a form past its prime and tries to keep it alive by highlighting its versatility. In Morton Gould’s Tap Dance Concerto, Alexander celebrates the musicality of tap rhythms, using his feet to create a duet with Gould’s music, played by pianist Joe Gattone. Tongues were wagging after this piece made its debut with the Chicago Sinfonietta in 1992, but the excerpt performed here got lost amid the boredom that weighed down the rest of the evening.

Alexander makes a valiant attempt to be hip and modern in 1994: the dancers create the rhythms by stomping their feet and beating on their legs, stomachs, feet, and knees,, This kind of thing can be exciting if the rhythms are interesting, but Alexander’s piece feels too controlled. There’s little spontaneity and no thrill in the movement. The energy goes nowhere; it has no shape and no crescendo.

Alexander is an accomplished dancer with loose legs and fast footwork. But tap choreographers must rely on their sense of rhythm, and unfortunately his isn’t that interesting. Perhaps his most successful piece is 8 the Hard Way, most likely because the dancers–Alexander himself, Kelly Etter, Jay Fagan, and Dina Pizzi–bring so much energy to their performances.

If there is a future for tap, it will be in young dancers like Jay Fagan: the solo he choreographed and performed, Last Acustic (Sic) Remains, brought the house down. Fagan seems to know that tap that shows off a bit is the most successful. He’s an incredible dancer with a keen sense of rhythm, and he manages to update this old form: dancing to a funky tune by Basic Beats, he made it even funkier with his feet. His moves are unabashedly flashy and entertaining. Sometimes tap is best when it doesn’t aspire to be more than that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Canale.