By Carrie Stern
Emmy Award-winning choreographer Jason Samuels Smith is a tapper with a vision. Stepping beyond your average Broadway musical, Smith, his stellar dancers and actors — Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Chloe Arnold, Baakari Wilder, Zakiya Young, Frank Harts and Brooklyn's own Michelle Dorrance — along with director, actor and tap dancer Dulé Hill and writer-director Awoye Timpo, have created a new sort of tap show that traces Smith's artistic process from conception through realization.
The show, which will be performed at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea on July 3 – 7, will feature three works, including two world premieres.
The program begins with “Imagine” (world premiere), a solo choreographed and performed by Samuels Smith. Performed with a live band, “Imagine” exposes Smith's experimentation with sound and movement, including the improvisational process leading to the creation of “Charlie's Angels: A Tribute to Charlie Parker” (2009), an excerpt of which follows “Imagine.” “Chasin' the Bird” (world premiere), a theatrical project written by Craig “muMs” Grant, continues the story using tap’s musical, theatrical and visual characteristics, enhanced by live music.
Samuels Smith is from acting, musical, dancing stock. His mother, Sue Samuels, and his father, JoJo Smith, are both well-known teachers and choreographers of jazz dance and there are musicians and actors in his father’s family. Samuels Smith, whose parents were divorced before he was born, grew up in Hell’s Kitchen once his mother’s teaching income solidified following a number of years without a permanent residence. He did not know his father until he was a teen. His older sister, Elka Samuels Smith, was also a dancer. Today she runs the management company Divine Rhythm Productions, founded with her brother in 1999. “But she’s still an amazing dancer,” says little brother.
But perhaps Samuels Smith’s career owes a greater debt to another family. Tap has a long tradition of master/student relationships, mentorships of older dancers offering promising younger ones a hand. “Because of my parents and upbringing, dancing seemed automatic,” Samuels Smith says, “like I was following in my parents’ footsteps. But tap was the only dance that really touched me. I was comfortable with how it’s executed, its musicality. And the people, the tap community — Gregory Hines and Jimmy Slyde, Savion Glover and Dianne Walker — they made it comfortable. I admired and wanted to be like them, so between dancing and the people, tap was a no-brainer."
After years of moving and frequent travel, Samuels Smith wanted to “settle in, plant [his] feet.” He wanted a home, and although he was reluctant to leave New York, he could afford Jersey City. “People are people,” he laughs.
On a hot June afternoon, with the sounds of children playing outside wafting through the window, Jason Samuels Smith talked about dancing, artistic process and life.
Q. Your show at the Joyce Theater is based on Charlie Parker’s music. What attracted you to him?
A. Tap is woven into the culture of that time period. I’m interested in showing the deep connection of tap to music, in showing that the difference between playing a horn and tapping is in how you chose to hear it and feel it. That generation of musicians was highly influenced by tap; the dancers were unsung heroes. Even though there’s not a lot of proof, I believe dancers were a true inspiration behind the vibes of music at that time. We know meetings and jams took place. Reading about Parker, [you find out] his father was a dancer in Boston. He wasn’t around a lot, but just the fact that he was a dancer — what kind of influence did he have musically on early Charlie Parker? Parker’s phrasing especially speaks to me. I can listen to a Parker solo and I can hear them dancing that solo out. I can feel the connections, like the pauses, the space Parker allows the phrasing; he’d come in with triples and duples, solos within solos. Others had done it, but it’s how he was putting it together. The tap dancers Iwork with I respect on the level of a world-class musicians.
Q. Talk about the origin of the three works you’re showing at the Joyce, the ideas behind them and how they connect to Bird’s music, how one grows from the other.
A. We have a great story: truth, deception — just some of the struggles an artist goes through in order to maintain the honesty and truth of art. We’re only telling first portion, getting into character and plot. The story has to do with the journey of an artist who embodies truth and gets distracted by the other sides of success, money, fame, and how excess and luxury can distract a creative person from their goal. It’s a little glimpse into possibility of what telling the story through tap can be, showing a new way of presenting tap from a theatrical stand point. We’re presenting the beginning of the story, showing the journey of the process of the idea, inspiration, and choreography into a scripted story that has characters. I want people to see a different way of presenting tap, to see how the next generation of tappers is really expressing themselves. There’s less improv in this show than usual, but my beginning is all improv and each dancer has a solo where they improv.
Q. One of your dancers, Michelle Dorrance, lives in Brooklyn. Tell me about working with her. You also have a pretty stellar cast of dancers, directors etc. How did this come about?
A. I feel like we have the top people in their craft at peak points in their career. It’s overdue, I feel these artists should have had opportunities like this before, but it’s great; this is our time and chance and there’s no better time than now. I’m blown away and grateful to have the opportunity to choreograph for such amazing artists and people, I see a future for this production.
Michelle is an incredible artist, and a cool person to hang out with. Funny, charismatic, she brings everyone together; she’s the glue. She’s from North Carolina, from Gene Medler’s tap school. She’s definitely one of best tappers in the world right now. Her experience not only allows her to be sought after as a featured tapper, she’s also worked in “Stomp,” she’s a bass player in a band, she’s just an all around an amazing artist. All the Brooklynites should come out and support her.
Q. What else would you like me to know about you and your work?
A. I’m seeing how far dance takes me. It’s a risk to follow your passion and dream, but that’s the greatest risk we should all take, to try and be happy in your life. Happiness is in following your path even if you find out it’s not the right path for you. You should put it all out on the line, never live with regrets; you never want to have regret. I want to live every day trying to improve my life and the situation around my peers, my family, and me. There’s so much to do in such a short amount of time.
Jason Samuels Smith is at the Joyce Theater July 3 – 7. For more information go to www.joyce.org.