Percussive dance comes in many forms, from Spanish flamenco to South African gum boot, from Irish step dancing to the “trash percussion” exploits of “Stomp.” But in this country, the art of tap dance has long been the name of the game, whether it’s Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, Eleanor Powell and the Busby Berkeley film spectacles of the 1930s, Gregory and Maurice Hines in the 1970s, Savion Glover in the 1990s, or Michelle Dorrance in the current moment.
CHICAGO TAP THEATRE IN ‘CHANGES’
When: June 30 – July 16
Where: Chicago Tap Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Run time: 1 hour and 20 minutes, with one intermission
Chicago has its own impressive tap dance history, with the likes of Jimmy Payne, the late dancer and teacher who arrived in Chicago in 1940s as an acknowledged master of the form, and with such companies as the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Chicago Dance Crash, M.A.D.D. Rhythms and the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project.
And then there is Chicago Tap Theatre. Founded in 2002 by Mark Yonally, this is the company that has pioneered the “tap opera” format, and as its name suggests, it does more than dance. It spins stories with compelling characters and intriguing plots by using the “language” of tap while adding live music, narration and ingenious design to the mix.
From June 30 – July 16 at Stage 777, the company will reprise one its most popular shows, “Changes,” a “tap dance opera” that pays homage to the science fiction serials of the 1940s and to the music of David Bowie. Choreographed by Yonally, directed by Harrison McEldowney, and featuring all new arrangements of Bowie’s music by Kurt Schweitz, it tells of a planet inhabited by peace-loving aliens, and the events that unfold when they encounter both a power-hungry species from another world, and a potential hero in the mold of Major Tom. Yonally plays Altego, the bad guy, who, along with two henchmen, arrives on the planet, subjugates its inhabitants and takes their wings.
“We wanted to bring this show back to honor Bowie,” said Yonally, who, along the way, has learned that one of Bowie’s kids even takes tap lessons in New York. “For the previous two incarnations of ‘Changes’ we just used the original Bowie tracks, but with his death [in January 2016] we thought: People want to hear his voice. So we found tracks of him singing without any background orchestrations, added live violin and cello, and created something I think is special.”
“This version retains many of the things that were audience favorites from the previous iterations,” said Yonally. “But we now have the talents of Kurt and Harrison on board. We also put in new scenes and updated the choreography, and have the resources for vastly superior production values, including lasers.”
How did storytelling become such an essential element in Yonally’s work?
“I was a voracious reader from the age of six, in part because I had insomnia as a child,” said the dancer-choreographer, who grew up in Kansas. “I loved to write from early on, too. I also had a brother, seven years older than me, who really took responsibility for my cultural education. He had a great interest in cinema, and we would watch films together and then dissect them — something I really appreciate now.
“The tap dancing interest came because I was a sickly child, and according to my mom, a very progressive doctor suggested physical activity to build up my immune system. Sports weren’t great for my asthma, so they decided to try dance. And from my first class at the age of three I was hooked, and by eight I was taling private lessons. I also was lucky to have come of age when tap dancing was having a renaissance, with movies like ‘Tap’ and ‘White Nights,’ and some of the old tap masters invited onto TV talk shows. Then, at age 14, I went to a summer program in Oregon where I danced for nine hours a day and studied with all my heroes, from the Nicholas Brothers to Jimmy Slyde, Diane Walker, Buster Brown and others.”
Ironically enough, despite all the dancing, when Yonally headed off to the University of Kansas he planned to study journalism, but it didn’t take long before he transferred to the University of New Mexico (where tap master Bill Evans led the department) and changed his major to dance.
“I think Chicago is really in something of a golden age of tap at the moment,” said Yonally, who teaches at the Joel Hall Dance Center and throughout Europe, and who hopes to get his company on the university circuit.
Meanwhile, he and his wife, the charismatic dancer Jennifer Pfaff Yonally, and the rest of the Chicago Tap Theatre ensemble (Kirsten Uttich, Aimee Chase, Isaac Stauffer, Sarah Owens and Sara Anderson, plus guest dancers Jenna Jozefowski, Sarah LaVanway, Christopher Matthews and Anna Lynn Robbins) will be tapping out a message to Major Tom.