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Tone, Text & Tap

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by Improvisational Arts Ensembles at Middle Collegiate Church, 50 E. 7 St., NYC, Sept. 28-29.

Tap dancer Brenda Bufalino is a terpsichorean marvel. When she taps, her feet conjure an expressive language that is more akin to singing than dancing. Unlike most great tappers, who snare us in webs of rhythmic patterns, Bufalino creates flowing sentences of sounds in which we hear pitches, breaths, vibrations, whispers, screeches, and gasps. We listen to Bufalino as we would to a vocalist, unaware of the performer's physicality, unconcerned with athleticism.

In the structured improvisational performance "Tone, Text & Tap," Bufalino collaborates with jazz singer Jay Clayton and spoken-word artist Steve Clorfeine. The trio seamlessly melds poetry, vocalizing, and dance into a relaxing hour of thoughtful entertainment, characterized by a '60s-era, counter-culture sensibility. Their Beatnik coffee house style of poetic recitation has been so commonly parodied that it is, at first, difficult to enter the work with open ears. But each time Bufalino's hoofing "dialogues" with Clayton's scatting (which a step on a foot pedal allows her to record, playback, and sing in harmony with), we are transported into a sublime musical environment that is completely mesmerizing.

A highlight of the evening is the women's special rendition of "Taking a Chance on Love." As Clayton intones the tune, Bufalino performs the elegant routine made famous by Honi Coles, the "king" of the "class act" style of tap dancing. Having studied directly with the master, Bufalino is one of the dance world's treasured "living links" to the ancestors and historical roots of hoofing.

Possessed of a spicy speaking voice—with spirited personality and edgy resonance that recalls a blend of Gwen Verdon and Julie Harris—Bufalino offers recitations in addition to her glorious dancing. The production's spoken texts (written by Clorfeine, Bufalino, Clayton, Lew Welch, e.e. cummings, and Ursula Le Guin) stress the importance of "being open" to the ever-changing nature of existence. We are urged to "let it go" and learn that keeping, holding, and constancy are notions to be relinquished. What perfectly appropriate sentiments upon which to ground a winning evening of improvisational work!

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