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This year’s Fringe Festival offers a rare chance to see authentic tap dancing at a concert level, beyond those cheesy recitals you had to endure in second grade. California Rhythm Project showcases the best aspects of tap in the show On the Corner of Rhythm and Rhyme.

California Rhythm Project, directed by Nancy Boskin-Mullen, artistic direction by Pam Thompson-Spinner

California Rhythm Project, directed by Nancy Boskin-Mullen, artistic direction by Pam Thompson-Spinner.

Hoofers young and old will appreciate nods to the past, complex rhythms, articulation, and artistry in the collection of 12 dances on view at the RAW Space in the Spreckels Building. (Last shows: July 9, 10, 13).

The show opens with the full company and poetry recited by velvet-voiced Ernie McCray. Darn it. The sound mix is troubled from the get go, and that’s a shame because when you can hear him, he sounds divine. An army of tappers on a hard surface overpower him. They also drown out recorded songs. I think I heard Janice Joplin. But you hear the company loud and clear in the dance akin to STOMP with brooms, cans, tubs, and a jug. Rhythmic cup stacking is spot on.

Tap dancing is a lot more than the film Happy Feet and Shirley Temple classics. Rooted in jazz and blues, Ireland and Africa, tap is American percussive music played with the feet. Dancers Katie Amarillas and Sidney Franklin’s duet “The Best is yet to Come” is a flirty conversation on a wooden staircase. If you ever studied tap, you know the staircase is classic.

Stair acts were the rage in Hollywood movies from the 40s and 50s. The Nicholas brothers, Bojangles, and others were famous on the stairs. Stair choreography in this Fringe show by Nancy Boskin-Mullen and Pam Thompson-Spinner pays homage to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, smooth and romantic, with some nice runs and clicks of heels up and down the steps.

Tap steps tickle the ear and have wonderful names. There’s the good ‘old shuffle ball change that becomes the famous time step: -shuffle hop step, brush ball change shuffle – then double it and triple it.

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There’s the slap and flap, and over the top, where you balance on the tip of your shoe and skip over your own foot. Wings are a work out. The dancer shuffles both feet out to the side and rotates both arms like giant wings for extra lift and drama. Then you got ‘yer cramp rolls – ball ball heel heel -that sound like a military drum corps, and your spanks and paradiddles. More on that later.

The tappers sound like an army and needs a tech magician to do sound mixing tricks. With that in mind, the strongest dances are duets and solos, with fewer metal taps. A dance set to a score of jazzy riffs and deep bass works well, as the company mixes clickity clack tap with syncopated hopscotch, jump rope, and basketball. In future shows, the company may consider a few soft shoe dances, without metal taps. Toss down some sand and boost the audio.

I most enjoyed the expressive arms and confidence of Ms. Amarillas, as well as the grounded hoofer style of Summer Briggs in “Busker.” Performing a cappella, Ms. Briggs nailed every heel, click, and slide. She arced forward slightly and dipped her shoulders in a groovy, relaxed style that made it all seem easy.

Savion Glover and Broadway musicals with Fosse sex appeal have sparked renewed interest in tap. The stiff upright Riverdance craze took over for a while. The common response is “tap dancing, meh,” and that attitude is misguided.

Boskin-Mullin’s dance “Restore to Factory Setting” crosses into modern dance territory and makes terrific use of space. Dancers wear trench coats and slice the air with sharp arm movements, then bend at the waist. They march and pivot with a flurry of fast shuffles, until they become possessed business folk or Soviet spies.

Tap dancing shares history with minstrel shows, Vaudeville, and burlesque. Bob Fosse picked up jobs as a tap dancer in burlesque halls and strip clubs. He brought the provocative gestures of strippers to his choreography in the shows Sweet Charity, Chicago, and, Cabaret. A revival of Cabaret with Alan Cumming as the Emcee is the hot ticket on Broadway now. He wears his suspenders in the most creative and uncomfortable way. Google that image. .

I was hoping for a dark and humorously risqué show like Cabaret as I entered Les Girls Theater on Hancock Street in Point Loma, one of the Off Fringe Performance sites. I’d seen several dance programs there before and hoped for the best. (Read my other reviews for context; one nabbed the first place award from the San Diego Press Club.)

Courtesan Café presented by Kata’s ARTburlesque won’t win any awards for artistic vision or beautiful choreography. There are plenty of spanks and paradiddles, and not the tap dancing kind. As in previous productions, the troupe relies on butoh and a vague and useless stripper plot. Instead of a giant web that looked like a blood clot from a dead animal, they fiddle with tangled bridal veils and macramé.

Charlene Penner, center. Anne Gehman, right, in Cortesan Cafe.

Charlene Penner, center. Anne Gehman, right, in Cortesan Cafe.

Butoh is a form of Japanese dance theatre marked by grotesque imagery and slow motion. But that motion has to be hyper controlled to work. Strippers who are not dancers and have trouble walking with arms alternating much less dancing are not riveting. The slow motion style is filler and a cop out. “Crawl across the stage slowly like a cat with your rear-end up, then crawl back,” is the common direction.

There is one fully set dance that can’t be unseen. Semi-clothed women wrestle with wedding gowns and do the hokey pokey with foam cones, the kind you find at a craft store. They march while holding them at their crotches, which is very crafty and suggests they don’t like men, or maybe they do. There’s confusion about gender and orientation.

Kata Pierce-Morgan, who runs the strip club, is quite lovely in a brilliant red dress, which she removes. She plays Mrs. Pigalle, who catches her husband Pigalle, played by George Willis, paradiddling with the much younger strippers. There is no  dialogue. Willis paddles an invisible canoe with aplomb and purses his lips as if he wants to whistle. He delivers a sordid poem about liking stupid girls best.

The only reason to attend this show is to witness the superb dancer and actress Anne Gehman. It should be titled the Anne Gehman show. Spoiler alert: She swings on a horizontal bar like an Olympic gymnast and grabs Willis around the neck with her legs like a hungry spider.

Still, there are too few laughs. Unlike Vaudeville shows with whacky variety good and bad, this one has no comedian or juggler to lighten the sad setting of dark carpet and low ceilings, breasts large and small. And there’s no alcohol. Cabaret laws don’t allow it at nude clubs.

But nobody does crazy like Anne and she sends a message that hits a nerve. As Colette the conflicted stripper, she quivers violently and pulls at her face, trying to force a smile. She struggles to stifle her whimpering and rubs the veins of her arms like a junky going cold turkey. But is she crazy like a fox? In a few scary minutes she blasts the whole stripper lifestyle. Now that is potent theater, but the production desperately needs a live song or two and screams for some sexy Fosse styled tap dancing.

Courtesan Café continues July 11, 12, 13 at Les Girls.

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Kris Eitland

Kris Eitland

Kris Eitland covers dance and theater for Sandiegostory.com and freelances for other publications, including the Union Tribune and Dance Teacher Magazine. She grew up performing many dance styles and continued intensive modern dance and choreography at the Univ. of Minnesota, Duluth, and San Diego State Univ. She also holds a journalism degree from SDSU. Her career includes stints in commercial and public radio news production. Eitland has won numerous Excellence in Journalism awards for criticism and reporting from the San Diego Press Club. She has served on the Press Club board since 2011 and is a past president. She is a co-founder of Sandiegostory.com. She has a passion for the arts, throwing parties with dancing and singing, and cruising the Pacific in her family's vintage trawler. She trains dogs, skis, and loves seasonal trips to her home state of Minnesota.

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