RHAPSODY IN TAPS: THE FIRST THIRTY YEARS
by Linda Sohl-Ellison as told to Carolyn Clarke & Sam Katz
Rhapsody In Taps, a Los Angeles based company is celebrating its 30th anniversary in October. This article is based on 2 interviews with Artistic Director Linda Sohl-Ellison and promotional materials. One interview was just prior to the company’s 15th anniversary by Carolyn Clarke which has been integrated with a second interview by Sam Katz. We spoke in depth with Linda, and asked her to reflect on this milestone. She graciously answered our questions, and we hope you enjoy hearing Linda’s thoughts. ~ C.C. & S.K.
The history of Rhapsody In Taps dates back to its founding in 1981 under the name LTD/Unlimited Dance Co. by Toni Relin and I. We were the co-artistic directors until 1984 when Toni retired and then I took over the company, which included me, Monie Adamson, Pauline Hagino, Beverly Scott, Karol Ritz and Darlene Culp. The original repertoire was not focused on tap dancing, but on movement pieces with some of the pieces centered on rhythm. Toni was creating theatrical movement pieces and I was choreographing dances that tended to focus on rhythm. We used a combination of recorded and live music; the program was really diverse. In the beginning, Toni and I were not thinking about creating a company for touring, nor were we considering marketing our work: we were simply interested in having a vehicle to create dances. Initially, we worked with dancers whose skills/aesthetics suited a particular work, i.e., a pick-up company of sorts. Our tap dance repertoire didn’t begin to develop until the first tap piece was made in 1982. By 1985, we were performing a program of all live music and tap choreography, and the company’s name was changed to Rhapsody In Taps to more accurately reflect the new direction. Eddie Brown and Sandman Sims were featured soloists with Rhapsody In Taps during that time, and Eddie continued to perform with the company until his illness in 1992.
Of course, working with Eddie Brown, early on, was a great inspiration. Dancing and rehearsing with Eddie, taking classes with him and experiencing his approach to improvisation was a highlight and a special gift. Those interactions had a great impact, and encouraged me to continue when there were obstacles. Most important to the development of company repertoire are the dancers and musicians in Rhapsody In Taps. I have great respect and appreciation for my dancers and have enjoyed long term relationships with many of them. These relationships have been personally rewarding and each dancer has also brought depth to my work.
Through the first ten years or so, there was very little turnover in company members. Over the next twenty years, as members retired or moved on, dancers were invited to join or to audition to become an apprentice. Dancers joined in the following order, in the year indicated. Marci Hemphill (1990), Christy Hernandez (1992), Fred Strickler (1992), Leann Aluenda (1992), Bob Carroll (1994), Steve Zee (1997), Rashida Khan (1997), Jimmy Fischer (1997), Mindy Millard-Copeland (1999), Chris Burkes (1999), Holly Scheall-Mehling (2001), Gabe Copeland (2003), Taryn Chavez (2006), Lacey Yell Pattison (2006), Hiroshi Hamanishi (2006), Daphne Areta (2007), Mark Marchillo (2007), Brittney McBride (2008), Caley Carr (2009), Aaron Pardini (2011) and Shay Simons (2011). Though we had some apprentice dancers early in the company history, our two year apprenticeship program was firmly established by 1999. In 2007, after an amazing legacy of twenty-five years dancing and assisting me, Pauline Hagino retired (her last performance was in ‘06), leaving me as the only original company member. Aside from Bob Carroll and I, all of my current company members have gone through our apprenticeship program. As we celebrate our 30th year, and I reflect about the dancers who have worked and flourished as apprentices with Rhapsody In Taps, I am proud to have been influential in their development as professional tap dancers.
When thinking about highlights, one of the most positive experiences for the company, and for me personally, has been working with musical artist/composers: Al “Tootie” Heath, Ceder Walton, numerous percussionists and with Louie Bellson on two big band projects. An artistic highlight was working with Gregory Hines for two weeks to create “Toeing The 3rd and Fifth”. I really enjoyed rehearsals and experiencing Gregory’s process of developing choreography and music simultaneously. It was especially interesting to see how he adapted his style and vocabulary to create a piece for five women.
Some of the company’s choreographic commissions supported by the NationalEndowment for the Arts include Fred Strickler’s “Just Around The Corner” (1993), Keith Terry’s “Cheatin’ The Snake” (1994), Sam Weber’s “Close to You” (2002) and Brenda Bufalino’s “Bufalino’s Bop” (1998). Several N.E.A. grants also supported my own choreography, (2001, 2006, 2008,2009). “Nusantara (Bridge Between Islands)” (1999/2000) was a unique and ambitious collaborative work for tap, Balinese gamelan music and Balinese inspired movement. This two year collaboration with Balinese composer/musician I Nyoman Wenten and his wife, Nanik and RIT resulted in a 40 minute, four section work funded by the James Irvine Foundation. These grants were instrumental in the creation and performance of “Nusantara” and our tour of Bali. While in Bali we stayed at a mountain side artist’s retreat where they built an outdoor rehearsal studio/pavilion with a sprung dance floor for us with a 180º panoramic view to rehearse the piece. A phase II grant from the Irvine foundation in 2001/2002 supported touring “Nusantara” in California.
In 2005 a tap/percussion collaboration with my husband, Monti Ellison, “Stroke of the Oarsmen”, received two Lester Horton Dance Awards for Outstanding Choreography and Outstanding Performance from the Dance Resource Center. In 1999/2000, I collaborated with Russian born composer and clarinet virtuoso, Leo Chelyapov to create “Laughing With Tears”, a theatrical, comical large scale, five part ensemble work combining tap dance and Jewish klezmer music. I spent quite a bit of time researching his piece, which incorporated a “Tree of Life” set by Brock Ciley and imaginative costuming by Ro George.
As far as philosophy, I don’t have a singular compelling philosophy that I’m interested in promoting about tap dancing. As an artist, I’m dedicated to choreography. There are various schools of thought about the value of improvisation versus the value of choreography for tap. I use improvisation mostly as a tool to choreograph; I am interested in composing pieces that can be reproduced in performance. Of course, within the composition there are often sections that are improvised, but there is a clear thought given to structure and development of a work and to the creation of repertoire. I also consider the audience’s experience when programming a full evening concert. I therefore try to program an evening that has a variety, including work that is traditionally based and work that explores new areas. There is also a contrast in the musical progression--in style, tempo and instrumentation. I feel strongly that artists in the tap community should be encouraged to follow their individual visions--to create whatever that particular artist is in inspired to create. I think it is a mistake to follow trends. I believe you have to do what it is that you are passionate about and what speaks to you, and that’s exactly what I’ve done. Sometimes it’s been successful and well-received and other times not, but having the opportunity to explore--break new grounds--keeps me interested in the form.
Working with only live music, I enjoy colors and a range of dynamics. Sometimes in our musical arrangements the taps are not exposed. There are places in our arrangements where I consciously let the music push or drive the dance, and maybe the taps for that moment are sacrificed. I feel that’s OK when you have a whole evening of tap dance and live music. “Milestones”, which I created in 1988 for the whole company with a feature spot for Eddie Brown was originally a piece built to showcase the company’s more visual style, contrasted by Eddie’s improvisational style. At our 15th anniversary, I re-created it with a major change--that was having Bob Carroll do Eddie’s part, and to have Bob join us in some of the ensemble work as well as to solo. When Bob danced in this piece, I sometimes looked up above and thought that Eddie was smiling.
Every year I choreograph a new solo, and or group pieces. I enjoy working with jazz music but I also work with other musical styles. Many of my experiments include other forms of dance and/or percussion including: “Two Ta’ Tambour” (1994) which used a 12/8 rhythm and in which M. B. Gordy, playing wood, gourd and bamboo instruments, actually moved on stage and participated in the physical action of the dance. In 1986 I choreographed “Stickato”, a piece done in jazz shoes using modern dance movement and rhythms played with sticks (dowels). The commissioned score by Swami Deva Asanga used odd meters and a Japanese koto to lend, an Asian quality in tone, music and costuming. Another multi-form piece was “Live Wire” in 1987 with three dancers in tap shoes and two dancers in jazz shoes performing counter rhythms and larger traveling patterns. The score by Steve Fowler included breaks where the musicians actually stopped playing and clapped responses to the dancers. I created “Duet” in 1987 with Brent Lewis accompanying me on his Ikauma drums, which are 22 chromatically tuned bongos. In 1989 I created “Piru Bole” a solo to John Bergamo’s original percussion score with percussionist Mark Berres (and later M.B. Gordy) on Indian tabla drums, Chinese bowls and vocal chanting. In 1990, I collaborated with renowned drummer/percussionist Al “Tootie” Heath to create “Raindance”. It was one of my early multi-section group pieces (about 20 minutes in length) with textural percussion, interlocking rhythms with six dancers who performed modern dance movement and tap/percussion sequences with 7’ rain sticks. In 1991, I created “Drum Thunder” a tap duet performed on amplified wooden platforms.
In 1995 I choreographed “Prelude and Fugue”, supported by a grant from the California Arts Council. The creative process for that project was very rewarding. The piece was inspired by the music of Bach. The “Fugue” was actually my first a cappella piece. RIT dancers Pauline Hagino, Christy Hernandez and Bob Carroll were integral in the creation of this work. It incorporated their skills in improvisation and relied on their excellent sense of timing and ability to shade and modulate the taps. In creating the piece, I felt like a painter, painting-at first one color, then adding other colors over the top, then going back to shade, blend, mix, rearrange or replace. It was a very loose and open process that I don’t normally use when I’m working with a jazz tune where I’m more inclined to follow the structure of a standard chorus. For me, it was a freeing kind of creative process and I really enjoyed it very much, especially because of the dancers’ skills and willingness to work this way.
My love for tap/percussion collaborations continues throughout the evolution of Rhapsody In Taps and also includes many other pieces, such as: “BEAT! Percussion Discussion” (1997) a collaboration with Michael Bissonnette, whose percussion score included Taiko, African and Arabic rhythms, was a twenty minute work for seven dancers who tapped and played specially designed wood drums created by Bob Carroll.
“Espiritu” (2001), was a collaborative duet between Monti and I with Monti playing the berimbau. We explored a range of rhythms and the dance included dramatic and playful interchanges. “Riptide” (2001) a 9 minute work featuring 5 tap dancers performing counterpoint rhythms, included showcase solos for the dancers with an African-based polyrhythmic drum score performed by Monti and 3 other drummers. “Dat’s Right” (2004) was another duet I made with Monti on vocals and percussion, to songs popularized by singer Harry Belafonte. In 2009 Monti and I collaborated on “Chugarump”, a 20 minute work in which the tap dancers and Monti play decorated paint buckets, stick percussion and wooden frog instruments. In 2010, I commissioned current company members, Mindy and Gabe Copeland to create “Drop da’ Beat”, a tap quartet with a hip hop flair. It was time to incorporate the younger energy of the company and I really enjoyed watching them grow as choreographers.
This year, we’ve spent the entire summer working on “Salute to Soul”, an 18 minute, theatrical five-part work created for Rhapsody In Taps’ 30th anniversary season. It is performed by the company’s 7 dancers and 2 apprentices to the music of American soul singers Otis Redding And Sam Cooke, sung by Monti Ellison with the RIT band. I have tried to incorporate or take into consideration who the actual dancers in the company are, and there is something “true” about each person dancing the piece. We have also been reconstructing notable works from the company’s past and have been preparing for our 21st annual lecture/dem for our free L.A.U.S.D. Children’s Program, which started in 1991 and happens the Friday prior to our annual Los Angeles performance. As part of the company’s 30th Anniversary celebration, Rhapsody in Taps will perform on its first tour to Mexico, presented by the Instituto de Cultura de Baja California.
Part of what has helped sustain Rhapsody In Taps throughout our 30 year history is an unusual and important relationship with the Orange Coast College Dance Department and the college as a whole. It is most unusual that a college or university supports a dance company by offering it an annual performance. We had a regular season at O.C.C. from 1982 until 2001. The college has supported us with studio space as well-that’s where many of our rehearsals are held. With O.C.C., Rhapsody In Taps coproduced the Southern California Tap Dance Festival in 1993, 1995 and 1997. That base of support has been most helpful in our continuity. We’ve developed a large following through those O.C.C. concerts and through various courses that we teach at the college and in the area.
It is and has been important for me to share my approach to tap with other dancers and interested students. I have been teaching for a long time as a full-time faculty member at Orange Coast College (since 1978). I often teach Rhapsody In Taps’ repertoire, giving students background on how the pieces were developed. When I teach sections of repertoire in a classroom situation, they’re often modified or altered to suit recorded music. Part of the value of learning repertoire is then viewing it in performance. Having learned the material in class and then seeing it performed in another context enables students to look at it and hear it differently. I also like, as much as I can recall or retain, to share with my students material that I have learned from tap teachers/mentors. Occasionally I’ll teach some Foster Johnson or Eddie Brown material or a few steps from Honi Coles. I’ll always say that this is material that Honi or Eddie Brown taught me. I think it’s important to give credit and to try to remember what specifically was being shared by those particular dancers, including their corrections and suggestions on how to execute the material properly. It’s unfortunate that much of the work I did with Foster wasn’t recorded and I’ve lost some great material. I also wish I had recorded the earlier material that I learned from Eddie when he first came to Los Angeles. Eddie generously gave tons of material to me and the company and to many dancers in Los Angeles. I hope in some small way I’m continuing that tradition.
Occasionally I speak to dancers who are interested in suggestions or information about how to start or proceed as a company. Everyone has different motivations and approaches. My focus was first and foremost making dances and creating the work, and then, out of necessity, I’ve learned the business side--selecting a Board of Directors, incorporating and becoming a non-profit organization, grant writing and administration. It’s been a moderate pace of development, where first there was the work, and then a need for administration and other support. When I think of young dancers and choreographers trying to get started, I’d say it’s pretty overwhelming if you know the whole picture. What’s required to sustain and market a company could be so intimidating that an artist just simply wouldn’t choose that path. I knew nothing about marketing and grant writing, and what this was going to take when I first started. I was driven by artistic ideas, inspiration and a desire to dance and make work--and lucky for me, along the way I was very fortunate to work with talented dancers, musicians and a great Board of Directors who have become friends of the family and without whom we wouldn’t exist. Some of our earliest board members Kay Davis and Ted and Marilyn Gatto were instrumental in giving me the freedom to do the creative work. Some of the saddest times in the companies history were when Kay retired and then Ted passed away in November of 2003. That had a very negative effect on the company... it was so hard to pick up the pieces of “running” the company.
The Company’s performance history includes four television appearances (KNBC and KCET), performing at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, a New York debut at Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival, San Francisco’s prestigious Stern Grove Festival for an audience of 10,000, three concerts at the Redlands Amphitheatre for 6,000 plus 24 annual Los Angeles seasons at the Aratani/Japan America Theatre and Marsee Auditorium at El Camino College, and 19 annual seasons in Orange County.
My goal for Rhapsody In Taps has always been more touring. Our touring history has been scattered, a little bit here, a little bit there-mostly in California, although over the years we have also toured to New York, Florida, Oregon, Wyoming, Michigan, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Canada and of course Bali. I personally have had the opportunity to perform and teach in Europe and to tour all around the United States and I had hoped to provide that opportunity for my dancers.
The company has enjoyed affiliations with Americas’ Tap Masters, in addition to working with Eddie Brown from 1985 until 1992, we presented numerous solo tap veterans in concert including Sandman Sims, Charles ‘Honi’ Coles, Steve Condos, Bunny Briggs, Arthur Duncan, Leonard Reed, Frances Nealy, Tap and Tray and RIT soloist, Fred Strickler.
Over the years we’ve had the luck to work with some of the best musicians in the business, including: Phil Wright, Gildo Mahones, Steve Fowler, Al “Tootie” Heath, Fritz Wise, Paul Kriebach, Ken Crutchfield, Jeff Littleton, Clayton Cameron, Althea Waites, M.B. Gordy, Ken Filiano, Art Hillary, Sal Lozano, Leo Chelyapov, Jack Le Compte, Jim Szilagi, Cecilia Coleman, Serge Kasimoff, Brent Lewis, Mark Berres, Ray MacNamara, John Bergamo, Rafael Murphy, Rusty Higgins, John Hatton, Lee Secard, Gordon Lane, Louie Bellson & his Big Band, I Nyoman Wenten and his Gamelan musicians. Our current company musicians are: Tim Messina, Music Director, Jardine Wilson, Bob Fernandez, Monti Ellison, Chris Blondal, Joe Rotondi and Bruce Carver--all superb musicians.
Thirty years in existence is truly an accomplishment. It is an ever evolving process. We have developed a repertoire of distinctive tap dance works, and the company has grown artistically. We have offered the tap community numerous services, such as our annual National Tap Dance Day celebrations, master classes, film presentations and workshops. We have left our footprints and we continue to create. Maintaining a company can be draining, and there are huge disappointments, but there is also a joy and satisfaction when things click. Dreams are realized and there is a tangible sense of accomplishment. It has been well worth it.
Photographers: Phil Channing, Craig Schwartz, Ed Krieger, Chauncey Bayes, Hank Schellingerhout, Don Peach, Jack Hartin