Contemporary tap show 'Pulse' premieres in Sarasota

'Pulse' brings modern sensibility to classic song and dance

mclear@bradenton.comMay 19, 2013 

The collaboration started with a fan letter.

About 10 years ago, Jeff Calhoun saw a Broadway show called "Never Gonna Dance." One of the performers, a dancer named Noah Racey, bowled him over.

"Although the show was not successful, I thought, 'He's the closest thing I've ever seen to a Fred Astaire or a Gene Kelly or a Donald O'Connor,'" Calhoun said. "I had never heard of a Noah Racey, but I wrote him a fan letter."

A few days later, Racey gave Calhoun a call. They've been friends ever since.

Racey, who has had a passion for the song-and-dance tradition of American theater and cinema all his life, eventually, with a group called New York Song & Dance, developed a show that celebrates the art form.

"We were touring overseas, spreading the gospel of tap," Racey said. "Then Jeff called and said, 'We should do this over here,' meaning the states."

That show evolved into "Pulse," which will have its world premiere May 23 at Asolo Repertory Theatre.

Racey, who's the creator and choreographer of "Pulse," and one of its six performers, and director Calhoun both have impressive Broadway resumes. Besides that unsuccessful "Never Gonna Dance," Racey was featured in the Rupert Homes/Kander and Ebb musical "Curtains" and in "Thoroughly Modern Millie."

Calhoun directed "Jekyll & Hyde," which closed earlier this month; "Newsies: The Musical," which is still running after more than a year; and "Bonnie and Clyde," which premiered at Asolo Rep before it went to Broadway in 2011.

It was through "Bonnie and Clyde" that Calhoun got to know Asolo Rep and its producing artistic director, Michael Edwards. Calhoun approached Edwards about producing the show at Asolo, and Edwards shared his enthusiasm.

"I'm at the point in my career where I can be choosy about what I do," Calhoun said. "You work just as hard on a flop as you do on a hit, so I don't want to work on flops. And this is a show I really wanted to do. 'Pulse' is exciting because it's unlike anything else that I've ever seen."

That same quality makes "Pulse" hard to describe, even for its creator and its director.

"To see it is to understand it," Racey said. But essentially, "Pulse" is an homage to the song-and-dance tradition, and particularly to tap. Its songs are traditional, and the arrangements are respectful to the original versions but have a contemporary attitude.

"It's old-school song and dance with a new-school sensibility," Racey said.

People who hear descriptions of "Pulse" often try to compare it to "Stomp" and to "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk." Racey and Calhoun said they're flattered by both comparisons, but that they're not quite on-target.

"I think 'Stomp' is to drumming what 'Pulse" is to song and dance," Calhoun said. "And the difference between 'Pulse' and 'Bring in 'Da Noise,'" Racey said, "is that 'Bring in 'Da Noise' had a lateral story line about African-American culture. We don't have so much a lateral narrative as we have a vertical escape."

"Pulse" owes a debt to "Bring in 'Da Noise," Racey said, because that show helped revive the reputation and the popularity of tap for a new generation. In the 17 years since dancer/choreographer Savion Glover became the first new tap star since Gregory Hines, tap has continued to grow in popularity.

"Tap has never been bigger, all over the world," Racey said. "In Japan, in France, it's huge. Thanks to the Internet, you can learn tap at home and you don't have to go to a studio."

Not only has the popularity of tap spread, but the talent level has risen dramatically.

"It's like athletics," Calhoun said. "You'll see an athlete in the Olympics set a world record that no one think can be beaten, and the next Olympics someone sets a new world record. It's like that with tap. I look at these dancers and they are doing things I couldn't even have imagined a generation ago."

Details: May 23- June 16, Asolo Repertory's Mertz Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday- Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $20-$72. Information: 941-351-8000 or www.asolorep.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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