Tap meets modern dance in ‘Insight/Incite,’ part of Nimbus Dance’s spring season

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Jason Samuels Smith performed with Nimbus Dance, March 23 in Jersey City.

Nimbus Dance’s spring season offered an engaging mix of dances old and new, including a bold experiment in pairing tap with modern dance. The presence onstage of tap star Jason Samuels Smith and jazz drummer Winard Harper made the premiere “Insight/Incite,” choreographed by Roger C. Jeffrey, an instant draw. The program, March 23 at The Nimbus Arts Center in Jersey City, also featured a reprise of Dawn Marie Bazemore’s “The New Tide,” a heartfelt reaction to the photographs of Gordon Parks, plus a preview of company director Samuel Pott’s new vision of “The Firebird.”

Tap artists and modern dance do not make natural companions, though occasionally they stray into each other’s territory. While the first express themselves through rhythm, the second find an outlet in physical imagery and spatial design.

Jeffrey doesn’t try to merge these arts in “Insight/Incite” so much as interweave them. While Harper and Smith do their percussive thing on platforms arranged around the edges, two men and three women occupy the center of the stage, dallying with one another or performing brief solos. Jeffrey’s choreography has its own rhythm, accentuated with poses and gestures, but its emphasis is on the lyrical flow of movement, with various scenes fluently arranged. Dancers tilt forward to touch and perhaps pull energy from the floor; Caleb Mansor emerges as a protagonist, elevated and manipulated by the group. Other characters and situations, however, lack dramatic focus.

The musicians, meanwhile, are powerful personalities dominating the scene even as they look on. Samuels Smith is especially vivid. Whether simply brushing the floor or galloping in place, rattling his heels or stomping with his whole foot, he demands our attention and is always worth listening to.


Kanon Sugino and Tamir Rios in “The Firebird.”

The other novelty was “The Firebird,” an excerpt from a work-in-progress. Pott has ditched the ballet’s original narrative and substituted a contemporary story about an unhappy teenager who escapes from her family in dreams. Feisty Kanon Sugino portrays the tormented adolescent, who clutches a pillow for protection as her parents and aggressive brother surround her threateningly. The dining table provides temporary shelter, and also becomes a platform on which Sugino receives a vision in a shower of golden light.

On the other side of the divided stage, Tamir Rios and two female attendants occupy a lyrical realm of the imagination, which Sugino enters using a pillow feather as her passport. Rios acquires a pair of wings, and the excerpt ends as Sugino urges him into flight.

Positioned midway between a narrative and an abstract composition, Bazemore’s “The New Tide” draws on the emotions and psychological states implied in Parks’ remarkable black-and-white photographs documenting life in mid-20th-century America. Here soul is everything. Sugino throws herself passionately into the opening section, spinning, flailing and dropping to the floor as Sam Cooke croons “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.” Kaysha Smith contracts and pulses with a secret life, then resumes a mask of impassivity, wielding a broom in an episode inspired by a famous photograph of a cleaning woman.

Tamir Rios is shown with a projected Gordon Parks photograph in “The New Tide.”

In “Bring It on Home to Me,” Mika Greene becomes the spirit of the cello that Rios adores. He catches her in mid-whirl and carries her in exaltation as couples waltz around them. Surely the impetuous rush of this dance is what Green and Rios are dreaming of when they assume a tender pose with her head resting against his shoulder — another iconic moment borrowed from a Parks photograph.

The setting for “The New Tide” is intentionally stagey, with the dancers repositioning a slide projector, screen and movable costume rack as each scene requires. Cooke’s music creates a wistful mood and Parks’ photographs, projected on the backdrop, lend an aura of glamour and heroism to a past that was not always so beautiful.

Inevitably, perhaps, the current generation seems puny in comparison. Yet Nimbus’ dancers have a wonderful vitality, and in “The New Tide” they bring the idealism of another era to life.

For more on Nimbus Dance, visit nimbusdance.org.

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