At an early show on the first night of Spoleto, audiences tend to be a little stiff. The giddy festival spirit hasn't quite set in yet, and the ready applause characteristic of Spoleto crowds doesn't yet come quite as readily as it will in a few hours, once drinks and dinner have loosened everyone up.
And yet it only took Jared Grimes about five minutes before he had last night's 7 p.m. audience hooting and hollering at a volume usually reserved for the grand finale, not the opening number. Grimes, a young virtuoso tap dancer born in Queens and raised in North Carolina, tapped his way onstage for about 10 minutes of fast, no-holds-barred, nonstop dancing that Gene Kelly would have been proud of — although it's important to note that Grimes' modern, edgy style is quite different from the highly polished Broadway tap of Kelly and Fred Astaire. Grimes is loose when he dances, often seeming to tap with his entire body, and there's almost always a huge grin on his face. The only thing that felt slightly off here was the lighting. For the first minute or so that Grimes danced across the stage, he would move in and out of spotlights, which made it difficult to see not only his feet but also the radiant joy that he expresses as he dances, which is almost as wonderful to see. I couldn't tell if the immovable spotlights were a deliberate choice or a mistake.
After several minutes of Grimes' solo dancing, a drummer (DeWitt Fleming Jr.) joined him on snare drum and cymbals. And although the two pieces they performed together couldn't have been completely improvised, they definitely had that feel. The two worked together like jazz improvisers, with Grimes saying, "Yeah, I like that," when Fleming found a particularly good beat.
Once Grimes good-naturedly told Fleming to "go on, or we'll be here all night," two female dancers, Karida Griffith and Robyn Baltzer, took the stage. Grimes has divided his show into four chapters that explore the different sides of tap dancing, starting with Rhythm Exploration (the opening solo tap number) and moving into Broadway Classy Touch (classic tap), Blending and Commercializing (street jazz) and Having Fun with it All (just what it sounds like). For this second chapter, Griffith and Baltzer floated on stage with big smiles and ballet arms, tapping gracefully to Natalie Cole's "Orange Colored Sky." Fleming, who turns out to be an excellent tap dancer as well as a drummer, joined them in a spiffy white blazer, showing off some truly impressive Broadway chops. Grimes finally came on stage as the song was coming to an end, only to have the music cut off abruptly and go into one of Grimes' voiceovers, saying "I felt a little cheesy." It made for a funny, surprising twist, but it was hard not to feel a bit disappointed. However cheesy they may be, group tap numbers to big band music are just so much fun to watch.
Grimes then took another break from the stage while Griffith performed to Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade." And then came one of the biggest highlights of the evening: a Grimes-Fleming duet tap number to Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm." In keeping with the improvisational feel of the night, it started off as a kind of tap-off between the two dancers, complete with some gentle trash talking, before exploding into a full-on synchronized tap routine with jumps, splits, and even jumps-into-splits. The audience couldn't get enough, catcalling each time the duo pulled off a big flourish, which they did often. It was a big, showy adrenaline rush — the kind of dance that you don't want to end. But there was more to it, too. "Rockin' in Rhythm," which was choreographed by Fleming, was a perfect blend of the best aspects of Broadway tap with the swagger and shine of the street-infused contemporary tap style that Grimes and Fleming seem to feel most at home with. So it was a choreographically interesting number to watch as well, assuming you could stop enjoying the pure spectacle long enough to think about that.
This was followed by a street jazz number to electronic music, as well as an impressive solo routine by Grimes in which he tap danced around a pair of high-top sneaker, keeping them between his feet the whole time. The rest of the group numbers, one without music called "A Capella," and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," were, like all the evening's numbers, well-executed and full of energy. Grimes then closed the show with Sammy Davis Jr.'s "The Lady is a Tramp."
For rousing dance performances, Jared Grimes' show really can't be beat. I have only two small criticisms, which really end up being backhanded compliments. While watching Grimes with his other dancers, particularly Fleming, definitely added to the show — I wouldn't give back "Rockin' in Rhythm" for anything — I selfishly wanted to see more of Grimes in the spotlight, center stage, with more showy solos. But he's an incredibly generous star and gave his co-dancers plenty of time and room to shine on their own (I should say that with Fleming this seemed warranted, as he is just as talented a solo performer as Grimes is).
My other criticism is that although the performers were excellent at communicating with each other on stage, they never seemed to totally open up to the audience. Judging by all the clapping and hooting, this wasn't that much of a problem, but if the performers had engaged a little more with those watching, it would have made an outstanding show even better. Grimes and the other dancers mostly seemed to be in their own little world up on stage, even when they were gazing out at us with musical-theater-worthy smiles or graciously taking their bows. I loved every moment of the show, but I did feel a bit alienated.
But then, I suppose that's one of the privileges of genius. Grimes can perform in whatever way he wants to and he'll still have an audience — he's just that good. And as long as he's still showing up on stage, I certainly won't complain.