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Flash Review 1, 2-12: Beyond "Stomp!"
Spirit-chasing with Tamango

By Diane Vivona
Copyright 2001 Diane Vivona

Urban Tap's "Caravane," seen Saturday at the New Victory Theater, is a whirlwind of trickster-percussionist performers brought together and led by the young, gifted visionary Tamango (Herbin Van Cayseele). This eclectic international group presents a show that is part circus, part vaudeville, part jazz set, part club act -- with a little African drumming thrown in. How do all these rhythms and styles come together? Exactly as listed, one after the other, with occasional overlap and reprise. There is no formality, no linear structure or thematic cohesion here. A single thread is spun from the performers' passionate desire to share the communion they receive while making polyrhythmic sound through their bodies. This is fun, like a happened-upon street fair or a travelling carnival, and equally, like all outings in that idiom, it features the hot dog tatters and soft-drink spillage that create unpredictable excitement and/or worry. Urban Tap is original, unusual and decidedly uncategorizeable.

Tamango is a tap dancer, but primarily he is a musician with a lot of style and physicality. In this show he wears a suit that combines the tails of a dandy with the legs of a minotaur: wide pants with heavy cloth fringe. He completes the outfit with cowboy-style boots shod with shiny oversized taps. Van Cayseele is a modern Marlboro Man, be-spurred and beautiful to behold. His movements reflect a unique blend of French/African/American cultures, particularly notable in the uncommon articulation of his dynamic range. His lightning-quick shifts from ripple-free glides to jagged shards of elbow and knee are unexpected and shocking. The effect is that of sticking a paper clip in a socket: eyes widen and arm hairs prickle -- "What was that?" -- and then it is over. It is a moment to be indelibly remembered and never revived.

The beauty of this improvisationally-based show lies within this type of experience: you never know whether the outrageous physical rhythmic feat you are watching is something that could be easily repeated, or something that will never, ever, happen again. This keeps you on the edge of your seat and, for me, coerced a few audible gasps. For the many children in the audience, it produced as much giggly delight and visible glee as it did quiet wonder.

Among the outstanding performers, vocalist Kenny Muhammad and capoeirista Cabello inspired the most awe-dropping, jaw-opening reactions. Muhammad has the truly extraordinary ability to simultaneously duplicate the sounds of a DJ scratching, a drummer riffing, and a guitar twanging, all while keeping a steady underlying synth beat. At first, my instinct told me that Muhammad was accompanied by DJ Signify, who spins and scratches during other jams, but I was mistaken. Muhammad was making all the sounds. His a.k.a. is The Human Orchestra and, although the sound of violins was notably absent in this performance, I would bet my bottom dollar that he could make a fair stab at an electric sonata or two.

Cabello is exceptional in his ability to not only use his legs and arms equally (a significant mark for any capoeira practitioner), but in his prowess in sustaining an action exactly at the point of normal acceleration. There are several moments when he dives with full-body force to the floor and, instead of speeding into action, suspends into stillness. The effect is so outrageous, so contrary to the laws of physics, that the feeling is of magic witnessed and believed. If Cabello had split himself in two, it would seem no more miraculous than this.

The final scene-stealer is a stilt-walker/spirit-dancer who strides down the orchestra aisle, flips himself with tremendous force and fearlessness onto the stage, and proceeds to astonish with tricks of bending back to the floor and levitating up again. This performer is clothed in traditional costume from the Ivory Coast, complete with faceless mask, straw hair and colorful mirrored tunic.

The entrance of the spirit world at this point is not surprising. There have been visual references to transformation via the Rorschach-like video images and short entrances of various spirit guides throughout the show. In the opening, Tamango, playing the mournful sound of a long hollow horn, coaxes out a masked figure who rattles and jingles and hums while crawling mysteriously across the floor. Later in the program, Tamango himself dons a mask and becomes a spirit whose feet speak the microphoned texture of steel and sand. The effect of each such apparition is a little eerie, particularly within the cold climate of Roma Flowers's moody green streaks of light. However, as striking and strange as these images are, they are no stranger than those of the tap dancer Rod Ferrone or the fleet-footed Max Pollak. Ferrone's physicality is a depression-era cartoon, complete with slumped back, stove-top hat, and wide burly chest; Pollak, though dressed as a pirate rogue, has the innocent aspect of a trick-or-treater.

In essence, all the images of this show are singular and unique. What is surprising is the unabashed, unapologetic presentation of such an eclectic arrangement of egos and talents. Only in this new millennium could such a performance be presentationally possible. Thank goodness for small blessings.

Urban Tap continues at the New Victory Theater through February 25.

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