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To The Mountain Top 

by Michael Bowen


Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in 1965. Alvin Ailey's premiere of Reflections in '62. Paul Gonsalves' solo with the Duke at Newport in '56.


If you had known at the time how explosive these performances would be, how famous they would become, you'd have cleared your calendar, made the time, scored the tickets. Sweetness in the house only once.


But sometimes, twice: Savion Glover in Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk in 2003, seven years after his show's Broadway debut. A second chance to see greatness in performance. Bring in 'da crowds. For this is not just Noise/Funk (as in the '99 tour), but Noise/Funk with Savion Glover, its creator and star.


Even now just 29 years old, the man won a Tony in '96 for practically inventing a new form of artistic expression: Call it talking tap, hip-hop as history lesson. It's a collage of tap and other dance styles, all melded with music and song and lights and drums and blended into a more-or-less chronological account of the black experience in America, from the slave ships to the 1990s. Glover has choreographed the show for four dancers: " 'da Beat" (himself), " 'da Kid," and two others, including Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, the first woman ever in Noise/Funk. They're joined by two drummers, along with a narrator, "'da Noise," and a solo singer.


The singing is where Lynette Dupree comes in. As " 'da Voice," her job is to complement Glover's multifaceted choreography.


A recent review referred to Dupree as "a singer of many styles," and she doesn't disagree: "That's kind of a prerequisite for the role. We cover different decades in each scene, from the 1700s to the present," she says, with Dupree singing call-and-response spirituals, blues, torch songs, funk, hip-hop and more.


In an early section entitled "Slave Ships," Dupree sings solo, onstage alone with Glover: "I'm naming the different ships, while Savion is dancing it." Together, they express the anguish of families chained in the holds of slave ships.


The antebellum era is represented by "Somethin' from Nuthin'," in which Dupree and others "play field slaves working 14-hour workdays. When my grandmother told me she worked from sun-up to sundown," Dupree recalls, "I didn't really know what she was talking about -- I suppose I thought she meant 9-to-5 or something." The segment begins and ends in darkness, the workday filled with singing that's "reminiscent of the old field chants, which just predate and acted as sources of what you know as Negro spirituals today," she says. "A lot of them were about happier times: 'soon as I get to Heaven, gonna get my reward,' lyrics like that.


"And then we go into 'The Circle Stomp,' and we're just having fun," she says.





Of course, even as the Noise/Funk troupe expresses the exuberance of its dancing, it is also trudging through the long, sobering history of African-Americans.


"The Lynching Blues," for example, is set in 1916, when an appalling number of blacks were hung from trees for such offenses as brushing up against a white woman. Dupree comments that "this is blues -- very old, not polished. I just refer to it as the washbucket blues."


Such atrocities set off black Americans' mass migration to the North, covered in "Chicago Bound."


"I'm narrating there," Dupree reports, "in a kind of sung-narration style. We took different items from the Chicago Defender, the first black newspaper, from around 1919. We took the actual words from stories and from ads: 'Looking for work'; 'Looking for a way to head north.' While I'm singing it, Savion is dancing it. He plays each person."


The show continues into the flapper era, "and it gets feverish, a kind of collage," says Dupree. It's almost as if people during a time of prosperity "know what is going to happen. You can see Hitler coming to power, right when the whole world is just into enjoying itself" in the '20s.


The Depression made it necessary for talented black performers -- in search of a buck like everyone else -- to kowtow to mainstream tastes, grinning and bearing it. Noise/Funk acknowledges as much when "Uncle Huck-a-Buck," a Bill "Bojangles" Robinson figure, is asked by "Li'l Dahlin'," who represents Shirley Temple: "Uncle Huck-a-Buck, why you so blue? / And why do I make more money than you?"


Yet just as the show satirizes the forcing of black entertainers into Stepin Fetchit roles, it also "pays tribute to the stars of the tap generation," says Dupree, "and to the all the great singers of that era, women like Lena Horne, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington." Near the end of the show, in the "Gospel/Hip Hop Rant," set in 1987, "we show the transition into rough, gritty, urban tap" -- the angry kind of dance that Glover refers to as "hittin'."





In preparation for this tour, Glover put his eight dancers through 40- and then 60-hour work weeks. That's 60 hours of tap. (There's some sweat involved.)


They work their ligaments and tendons -- and they'll work you, too. "You could say that the show opens with a challenge to the audience," says Dupree. " 'Bring the noise and bring the funk, bring the best of what you got,' is what we sing, and it's almost like a warning to the audience: We're gonna be up here giving it the best we've got, so you need to do the same."


Dupree hasn't done a single stage show in the four years since the first national tour of Noise/Funk closed. "Because this is the top," she says. "After you've told this story every night for three years, you can't just go sing a song in a regular musical and have everybody say, 'Oh, that's pretty. She has a nice voice.' Because I have been to the mountaintop, and everything else just seems..." Her voice trails off.


Clearly, she believes that Noise/Funk sounds like the kind of stage phenomenon that has to be truly felt to be understood. "What people don't understand about tap," Dupree explains, "is that it is more than just tap. It's a language you can actually communicate with. Dancers can use tap to convey how happy they are, or how miserable. And you can hear actual words in the tapping. You'll see people coming out of there saying, 'Now I get it. I heard that.' "


So is that why Glover refers to Noise/Funk-style tap dancing as "talking without words"?


"Exactly," says Dupree.





Publication date: 02/13/03

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