On Stage: An Improvised Journey

The tap show ‘Branches from the Same Tree’ will be in Brookland this weekend. 

By Dorie Chevlen

(Photos Courtesy of Eduardo Patino, Matthew Murphy, Enoch Chan)

(Photos Courtesy of Eduardo Patino, Matthew Murphy, Enoch Chan)

Three of the brightest stars of the tap dance world will be performing in the District this weekend and, frankly, I know very little about what that’s going to entail. I haven’t seen what the dancers will be wearing; I haven’t heard the music set to accompany them. And in the most shocking confession of this dance review, I’ll admit: I haven’t even seen what the choreography looks like. This may sound like lazy journalism, but I promise you it’s not my fault. When Baakari Wilder, the curator and one-third the show’s tapping force, tells me that I can’t sit in on a rehearsal he’s not just playing coy: There are none.

That’s because ‘Branches from the Same Tree,’ to be performed at Brookland’s Dance Place by Wilder, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and Jason Samuels Smith, is going to be largely improvised. If the thought of a full-length unrehearsed performance sounds dubious to you, relax. Producer Lisa Swenton-Eppard is not exaggerating when she says that the three dancers are “amongst the tap community’s masters.” Collectively, their careers have spanned Broadway, television, and film. They have toured not just across the country, but around the world. Wilder has won a Bessie award, Smith an Emmy, and Sumbry-Edwards, whose rise to stardom may be the most dazzling of the trio, caused even The New York Times to wonder: “Are there enough words in the dictionary to praise Ms. Sumbry-Edwards?”

In other words, this ain’t their first rodeo.

The upcoming performance at Dance Place doesn’t mark their first time dancing together, either. The three first became professionally acquainted in the late 90s, during their stint in the Tony-winning Broadway musical, Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk. The tap community is a small one; none were total strangers to each other prior to that (in fact, Sumbry-Edwards and Wilder had once met as children during a dance festival), but being able to learn from one another on such an intimate level was influential. “We were performing 8 shows a week together” Wilder recounts. “There were a lot of moments in it where improvisation was part of the show. So on a daily basis we were trading, developing, learning, sharing, and stealing from each other.”

Of course, before they could become artists capable of influencing each other, they first had to learn from the tap masters of the past. As the title suggest, ‘Branches of the Same Tree’ recounts this journey—the intricate ways that their teachers and mentors influenced them, and the ways that they in turn influenced one another. “That tradition gives us freedom to bring out where we are as dancers today,” Wilder explains. “That’s what brings the joy out of it; still mimicking a tradition but adding onto it.” Each dancer has chosen a specific tap master to pay homage to, both choreographically and through multimedia footage.

‘Branches’ will begin by honoring these legends then move into improvised solo performances by each artist, and finally close with all three improvising together. The whole thing will be accompanied by live and—you guessed it—improvised music, performed by local musicians Chaney Thomas (bass), Holt Udeobi (piano) and Richard Seals (drums). After the performance there will be an artist talk back in which audience members can ask the dancers questions about their history, their influences, and of course, their dancing.

Wilder says, “Tap dancing to us is a language, a form of communication, without using words just…the rhythm.” I, for one, look forward to listening.

‘Branches of the Same Tree’ will be performed at The Dance Place November 5 at 8:00 p.m. and November 6 at 4:00 p.m.danceplace.org

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