When Yvette Glover gave birth to the youngest of her three boys, she named him "Savion," her version of the word "savior" and an homage to her deeply held religious beliefs. Little did the actress and professional singer know that 22 years later, her son would live up to his name as the star and choreographer of Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk.
Savion Glover has been hailed as a savior of sorts this past season for bringing revolutionary expressiveness to tap dance in this unexpected Broadway hit at the Ambassador Theatre. The show, which won four Tony Awards last June including one for its young choreographer, retells African-American history by tracing its percussive rhythms from days of slavery to the lynching and race riots of the thirties to its absorption by mainstream culture to a reflection of contemporary urban tensions. The one-time prodigy of the 1984 musical The Tap Dance Kid (Glover tapped into the show in 1986) and featured performer of 1992's Jelly's Last Jam has now reclaimed tap dance for a whole new audience and gained stardom in the process. His ticket: size 11 1/2 EE feet, an instinctual musicality and a life spent on inner-city stoops and basketball courts.
"These are our expressions, and my style is raw, rough and ragged," says Glover of his place in a line of tap dancers, which stretches from the plantation shacks to vaudevillians like Buck and Bubbles to greats like Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney and Honi Coles to his immediate predecessor, Gregory Hines. "Before, tap was very entertaining and amusing, arms and legs and big old smile. But we want to treat it in a more serious way, to express all sorts of things‹fun, anger, happiness, sadness, intensity, reality. I want to entertain, but I'm interested in a whole range of feelings."
There are few entertainers more uniquely suited to the job of transforming tap into an arsenal of emotions than Glover, although one could never tell it by looking at him. Few Broadway stars have been as unprepossessing and modest as this young man with his wispy goatee and dreads swept up beneath a knit cap. Born in Newark, N.J., he only recently moved his mother and brothers to the ritzy suburbs of Montclair. He looks like nothing more than a homeboy as he emerges each night from the stage door of the Ambassador Theatre to greet the throngs who wait for him after each performance, many of them having witnessed their first Broadway musical.
"I think he's inspirational," says Fred Martinez, a 22-year-old Puerto Rican-born New Yorker who is himself an aspiring actor. "I don't attend a lot of theatre because I don't relate to it. But this is different; this was great. It motivates me."
Later, Glover is happy when told of Martinez's response, but he adds that while he hopes audiences enjoy the show, he is simply doing what he has always done since he was two years old and high enough to bang on pots, walls, closet doors: reach for the rhythms within himself and express them through his feet. "We're trying to represent tap on a funk-type hip-hop level, but also on a jazz, or reggae, or salsa level," he says. "But the important thing is 'hitting it': hitting the beat or the pulse, finding the groove you can ride, using your feet like a drum."
Glover's opportunity to "ride the grooves" of his artistry and cultural legacy came a year-and-a-half ago when director George C. Wolfe gathered together a group of artists at The Public Theater in downtown Manhattan for what would turn out to be an extraordinarily open and improvisational collaboration. As the director of Jelly's Last Jam, Wolfe had recognized that Glover was heir apparent to "a powerful folk tradition," as the artistic director of The Public puts it. It was one which could be utilized to string together a series of vignettes sketched by the rap discourse of poet Reg E. Gaines and the music of Daryl Waters, Zane Mark and Ann Duquesnay, who was also to be the featured singer of the show. (She would later win a Tony for her performance.)
When Wolfe's call came, Glover was prepared. He brought to the table his own troupe, Real Tap Skills, made up of Baakari Wilder, Vincent Bingham, Jimmy Tate and Dulé Hill and two drummers‹Jared Crawford and Raymond King‹whom he'd met playing on the street while performing in the 1989 musical revue, Black and Blue. Glover illuminated the scenes with his explosive cutting-edge choreography‹a Deep South lynching, industrial muscle power and the comic rage behind trying to hail a cab in downtown Manhattan. But one of the show-stoppers grew out of the young dancer's own personal and moving tribute to the venerable hoofers who had come before him, many of whom he'd worked with and learned from.
Before a bank of mirrors, his back to the audience, Glover launches into a medley of dance steps, signatures for the honor role of tappers including Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Buster Brown and Ralph Brown. In the number, Glover, in a voice-over, announces to the audience that his own personal brush with these greats forged a new style in him: "I never did go back to like flap-flap-shuffle-step. There wasn't nuthin' there for me since I was like 13. . . I don't see how people would wanna see that old school or like old style of tap dancin' when they know there's some hittin' going on over here."
The scene is highly improvisational. Throughout the show itself, the dancers jam with each other inspired by a leader whose riffs have led many people to compare him to such jazz greats as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. "Every performance is different," says Glover, "because I'm different, my mood is different. Other dances are like languages, like French or Spanish, but my steps are slang, and slang is always changing." Glover is conscious that he serves as a link between the past he reveres and the future he hopes to influence through being a teacher and a mentor to others. On Tony night he wore beads around his neck that once belonged to his grandmother‹the woman who had hummed lullabies to him when his mother was out single-handedly supporting her family by working as an administrative secretary. "She passed away, and I grabbed her beads because I wanted to remember her," says Glover. "But she's always with me, the way that others who came before me are with me."
When he's not onstage, Glover can usually be found on the basketball court where he is a fierce and dynamic player. ("I'm a basketball freak," he says.) But when he's not driving forward on the court, chances are he's teaching in a dance studio, a veteran and respected master at all of 22. He takes his mandate seriously, having recently conducted a midnight seminar at the Broadway Dance Center after a performance. "Midnight Madness" drew 200 dancers who kept "hitting it" into the wee hours of the morning.
"I feel like it's one of my responsibilities to keep the dance alive, to keep it out there, to keep the style burning," he says. "I'm really looking to get my own building, establish my own schools, where a lot of kids my age can teach what they know to the young people who will come after me."