Savion Glover is the embodiment of cool. The tap prodigy made his choreographic mark on Broadway with Bring in ’da Noise Bring in ’da Funk, a tap revue of black history from slavery to present day—which at the time was 1995. Twenty years later, George C. Wolfe (the director and conceit of Noise/Funk) tapped Glover to choreograph yet another exploration of black history: Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Amidst the buzz of Times Square, Glover’s calm radiates as he describes his approach to dance. It’s just music through his feet.
When George called you and asked you to work on Shuffle Along, did you know what your choreographic approach would be and what kind of tap you wanted to bring to it?
SG: No, I didn’t know what style initially for style, what we would go for. Once I found out it was a period piece, we’re dealing with the 1920s and stuff like that, I knew it would be, I don’t want to say less aggressive, but I had to pull from images and things of that time period. My personal style, at this point in my life, is more audio; it’s more driven by less visual and more musicality. But because of my upbringing or my fabulous mentors and teachers that I’ve had throughout my dance journey or career, I also possess a style that is of the past. It was just a matter of me reaching back. It’s like one foot in the past, one foot in the future.
Did you go back and watch footage of any particular artists?
SG: I was always looking at footage of dancers from Nicholas Brothers to Ralph Brown to Sand Man to Miller Brothers and Lois, and I grew up looking at old footage. As I continue to dance and continue to study, which I do, that’s all I do is watch footage, watch footage, watch old clips. I still like to search for old clips, black and white. With George, he introduced me to even more footage that I had not been familiar with, where the sound wasn’t even available. It was just the movement, which helped tremendously with my approach to some of the stuff that is not tap, per say, that is more just dance movement.
Speaking of the musicality, one of my favorite moments in the show is that clarinet solo as dance. Was that always envisioned as a tap expression of the instrumental solo? Did you see it in the script and think “George, I want it to be this way”?
SG: No. It was George’s idea. Most of this show, if not 99 percent, is George’s idea; it’s just my position and my proud privilege to bring his vision to life through the dance. This was something that he wanted to be a dance of rage from William Still, the fact that this [other] guy had been stealing his [musical] notes and whatnot. That was the approach. It wa: How can we interpret—or show this guy interpreting—this dance of rage while still blowing the rage through the clarinet and, at the same time, dancing it?
You have a range of dance talents in your show: Your ensemble is full of strong dancers, but Audra McDonald hadn’t tapped, Brian Stokes Mitchell is a tapper but hasn’t danced like this on Broadway in a little while. Tell me about working in the room with all of those different people.
SG: It was just wonderful. You know, like I saw, Audra she continues to raise the bar as an entertainer and as a performer. [The leads] did not allow me to give them anything or any step that would be less than what the ensemble is doing. Like when they’re doing these ensemble numbers like “[Wild About] Harry” and stuff like that, they wanted to do exactly what the ensemble is doing. I was happy to work with them. They were adamant aboutgetting the steps and understanding my approach through the musicality of the dance. I don’t deal with, “It’s going to be hop flap flap flap shuffle step.” I don’t deal with that. I just say, “We’re doing shoo-koo-ba-doom-boom-oom-bam.” And that’s what it is, and they accepted that. Once you start throwing around all this terminology, in my world it just gets a little confusing.
You’re going to be onstage in Shuffle Along soon. What can we expect with this new piece of the show?
SG: I can’t tell you yet. I mean, you expect just, hopefully, another phase or level of entertainment. What we don’t want to do is make it a variety show. The show is so well-constructed already, well-written, well-put-together, so sophisticated in itself that we don’t want to take anything away from the show. This guy, the brilliant, the great, the fabulous, the metaphysical phenomenon of George Wolfe is back in his thinking tank, and we’ve been having several meetings about how we can do it and how we can make it better with my implement.
Check out more original photos and interviews with the other four Tony-nominated choreographers.
Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby. See more at ruthiefierberg.com and follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.