Linda Sohl-Ellison began her career as a modern dancer before co-founding Rhapsody In Taps with Toni Tack in 1981. Now in its 35th season, Rhapsody In Taps gave a high energy performance at the Marsee Auditorium at the El Camino College Center For The Arts. The program included an overview of the company’s repertory with works dating back as far as 1989, and finishing with current and former company members onstage for the finale.
Artistic Director Sohl-Ellison’s exploration into different dance forms and her knowledge of music shines throughout her choreography. She has studied and worked with such tap greats as Foster Johnson, Eddie Brown, Honi Coles, Buster Brown, Gregory Hinds and one of Los Angeles’ own tap luminaries, Lynn Dally, Founder and Artistic Director of Jazz Tap Ensemble. Rhapsody In Taps has always performed with musicians playing live onstage; musicians who sometimes become part of the choreography like Monti Ellison in Wade (2009). Choreographed and performed by Sohl-Ellison, Wade was a beautiful duet to the iconic Negro Spiritual Wade In the Water (1901) by John and Fredrick Work. Married in “real life”, Monti played drums and sang as his talented wife honored the well-known song with subdued but intricate tap rhythms.
The company is blessed with extremely talented dancers who dazzled the audience with their clear, energetic musicality and dancing talents. Sohl-Ellison’s choreography requires these young artists to perform several dance styles; sometimes all in one work. A clear example is evident in Nusantara (Bridge Between Islands) – Excerpts (1999-2000) with choreography by Sohl-Ellison, Movement and costume consultant Nanik Wenten, and music by I Nyoman Wenten and members of Gamelan Burat Wangi. The truly versatile and beautiful Daphne Areta joins Aaron Chavarria and Hailey Bundrant to weave together Sohl-Ellison’s movement style with elements of traditional Balinese dance. Later, and one of the most moving works on the program, Sohl-Ellison performs a section titled Dwi Rupa (Two Faces) with dancer/musician I Nyoman Wenten. The members of Gamelan Burat Wangi then encircle, chant, and encourage former company member and guest artist Jimmy Fisher in Kecak (Monkey Chant). Taking up the majority of the second half of the evening, Nusantara (Bridge Between Islands) was a wonderful joining of cultures, but it lasted a bit too long.
Tribute to Gregory Hines was a short film which shows Gregory Hines in rehearsal with then members of Rhapsody In Taps. It was a treat to again see the magic of that late, great tap artist. The film was followed by Toeing The 3rd and Fifth (1990) a dynamic and challenging work choreographed by Gregory Hines, and performed with seeming ease by Daphne Areta, Taryn Chavez, Hailey Bundrant, Aaron Chavarria, Aaron Pardini and Aaron Williams.
It is difficult to choose which of Sohl-Ellison’s dances out shines the others. Her work is richly varied so each dance has its own personality. She moves us from high to medium to easy energy levels with professional clarity. Mambo Musings (2008) with its sensual rhythms has the dancers covering the space while moving smoothly in and out of different choreographic patterns. Eddie’s Suite (Duet) (1989), however, has Linda Sohl-Ellison and Daphne Areta executing fast foot work without covering ground too quickly. Drum Thunder (1991) forces Taryn Chavez and Aaron Williams to move large and fast atop the confined space of two wooden boxes. Boot Brigade, with Daphne Areta, Aaron Pardini, Taryn Chavez, Aaron Williams, Hailey Bundrant and Aaron Chavarria wearing thigh high leather boots shows off their rhythmic talents with fast hand to body slaps, as well as hand to leg and floor.
The evening finished with the Rhapsody In Taps’ Legacy Finale performed by current and former company members and soloist; most notably the esteemed modern dancer, choreographer and tap dancer Fred Strickler. Strickler performed with the Bella Lewitzky Dance Company, Jazz Tap Ensemble and as soloist with numerous other groups. It was wonderful to see the variety of talent that has performed with this company over the years.
It is clear why this company is still going strong as it moves into its 35th season. The performance of Rhapsody In Taps was as varied in energy as it was in mood and music styles. The extraordinary band members include Tim Messina, Music Director and woodwinds; Joe Rotondi, Pianist; Chris Blondal, Drummer; Monti Ellison, Percussionist, drummer, composer and singer; Bob Fernandez, percussion, and Bruce Stone, on upright and electric bass.
Special attention goes out to Costume Designer Ro George whose exquisite costumes not only gave each dance its own personality, but enhanced the dancers’ bodies and moved beautifully; freeing the dancers to perform their best. Also providing each dance with its own environment and uniqueness was the work of Lighting Designer Brock Cilley.