Annual Jersey Tap Fest continues to evolve

Jason Samuels Smith will be one of the featured performers at the Jersey Tap Fest.

Jason Samuels Smith will be one of the featured performers at the Jersey Tap Fest.

The Jersey Tap Fest is on a winning streak. After three years of sold-out performances, the festival, which returns to the Westminster Arts Center at Bloomfield College in Bloomfield this weekend, will expand its offerings to include a second main-stage show. Founder and artistic director Hillary-Marie Michael hasn’t stopped tinkering with the formula, however.

In addition to the annual “Tap ‘N Time” showcase, which caps a schedule of classes and workshops on Saturday, the festival will reprise Michael’s evening-length program “Soul Walk,” a collaboration with scat singer Emily Braden and Andrew Atkinson’s band that had its premiere in January. Michael says she has added two new numbers to round out “Soul Walk,” which takes the stage on Friday.

The format for “Tap ‘N Time” has also changed. Last year’s showcase already signaled a departure from business as usual, with participants encouraged to think in terms of collaboration. This year, instead of running together an assortment of brief solos and duets, Michael is offering three of her colleagues the chance to present substantial, 20-minute works. Heather Cornell, Jason Samuels Smith and Caleb Teicher will be the featured artists, their performances augmented by the youth ensembles traveling to Bloomfield from Washington D.C. and Boston. Performing in between the professional acts, the youth groups will include Boston Tap Company, Capitol Tap, Metro Youth Tap Ensemble and New Jersey’s very own NJTAP2, the youth company of the New Jersey Tap Ensemble (directed by Deborah Mitchell).

“We all have this work we want to share, but we never have the opportunity,” Michael says. “As tap dancers, we’re often just asked to do a small piece here, a small piece there. There is a lot of great art in the world that isn’t being seen — not because it’s not being created, but because there is a major lack of performance platforms.”

Michael says she also hopes that tap artists who have not considered choreographing longer works may be inspired to do so.

On this year’s Tap ‘N Time showcase, Cornell, a Canadian dancer renowned for her improvisational skills, will present an excerpt from her piece “Conversations.” Michael describes it as a fusion of various musical traditions. The accompanists will play African balafon, stringed instruments, flute and steel pan drums, while Cornell herself will change tonalities by dancing on different surfaces.

“She sand-dances. She dances with wooden taps; and she dances with regular taps,” Michael explains, adding “It’s like you’re an entirely different dancer depending on which platform you’re stepping on.”

CALEB TEICHER

CHRISTOPHER DUGGAN

CALEB TEICHER

Teicher, meanwhile, has been winning rave reviews for an act in which he dances to a recording of pianist Glenn Gould playing Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” In this piece, called simply “Variations,” Teicher shares the stage with two companions. “It’s a refreshing approach to Bach,” says Michael.

Samuels Smith, one of today’s most sought-after tap performers, will present a work to-be-announced.

Michael has recruited a couple of new soloists for “Soul Walk.” Joining the cast this weekend will be Tyler Knowlin. “He’s tall, handsome and has a really nice energy,” Michael says, while she describes another newcomer to the show, Brazilian dancer Leonardo Sandoval, as someone with “a smooth and fierce approach to dance.” The other soloists are Corey Hutchins, Gabe Winns and Michael herself.

The dances she has added to “Soul Walk” include a transitional number called “Groovin’ ” and “Black Fire,” a high-energy piece that borrows its rhythms from traditional Indian music and dance. Though Michael says she has never studied Indian dance, she recalls the thrill of jamming with the late Kathak virtuoso Chitresh Das and his company at a tap festival in Los Angeles organized by Samuels Smith.

Like tap, Kathak is a percussive style. “As tap dancers we are dancers and we are musicians,” Michael says. “It’s our responsibility to honor the technique of our dance and, at the same time, honor the melody and the rhythm that the music calls for.”

For performance tickets, visit jerseytapfest.com or call (973) 932-0561.

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