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A Musician And Dancer Unite For A Novel Performance On Sand

Composer and pianist Conrad Tao with dancer Caleb Teicher. (Courtesy Em Watson)
Composer and pianist Conrad Tao with dancer Caleb Teicher. (Courtesy Em Watson)

More Forever” is a collaboration between a couple of exceptional 20-somethings, both celebrated in the music world and dance scene. Working together for the first time, musician Conrad Tao and dancer Caleb Teicher have created a novel sound and movement exploration that combines new music and a very old style of tap dancing.

For this performance, Tao sits at a piano and plays his newly composed score, while Teicher and his company, who usually perform on a conventional wooden stage floor, dance in a giant sandbox. They are experimenting with a thumping and scraping tap dance form that predates the invention of metal taps and their familiar striking sound.

When the work premiered in New York City a year ago, the New York Times’ Brian Seibert wrote, “The sound in the dark could be that of a scratchy old record. But when the lights come up, you see that it is the tap dancer Caleb Teicher, caressing a sanded floor with his leather shoes: not a scratchy old record at all, but a young artist trying new things.”

“It’s as much for the ears as the eyes,” Teicher told me in a recent phone interview. He was sitting on a park bench in New York, with the whoosh of cars interrupting him from time to time. “It’s hard to find a quiet place in New York,” he said. He could have been talking about his life as well. Last year was particularly busy with performances, awards, and accolades from major media, along with his face on the cover of Dance Magazine.

Tao’s professional life is even more oversubscribed. Since age 8 he’s been a concert pianist. Prominent on the classical music circuit, Tao also composes and performs worldwide in recitals, as well as with symphony orchestras, and with a part-time piano trio.

To find three weeks to work intensively on “More Forever," Tao and Teicher collaborated in spurts, every three or four months. They’d work for a week, go their separate ways, and return to the collaboration months later. Tao loved this style of creating.

“As a composer I’m used to working alone, writing new music,” Tao said. "It’s a lot of hours spent alone in a studio. Sometimes it’s total magic, and sometimes it’s like beating your head against the wall."

This collaboration was different. “I did spend some time in my studio, working alone, before we started working. But the bulk of it was written with everyone in the room,” Tao said. "The various movements of the piece came together in a mysterious alchemical way. I’d never written for dance before, and it didn’t feel like writing music for dance. It felt like writing music with dance.”

And the dance style adds sound that’s not familiar. Aiming to avoid conventional tap, with its loud, percussive beats, Teicher said, “We’re dancing in leather-soled shoes, and there’s sand under our feet — between our feet and the floor. And it provides a completely different tonal quality. It also allows for something that tap dancers always want but can’t have, which are sustained notes. If you drag your feet across sand you can play a half note or a whole note. Whereas in most tap dance scenarios the note you can play is as long as the floor reverberates your strike. It changes the tone completely and has a different feeling.”

For Tao, the challenge was dealing with dancers tapping in sand, and composing the score in tandem with their development of the choreography. He had ideas about the music, but said, “we had to communicate about what the work was, back and forth. And we don’t speak the same vocabulary.”

Ultimately, does the combination of new music and old tap tradition work? The audience reaction, Teicher said, has affected people differently. “After its premiere performance, someone came up to me and said ‘Oh that was gorgeous. I cried my way through the last 20 minutes.’ And then the next person said ‘That was so much fun!’ And I enjoy that those two reactions were capable of being had in the same performance.”

“A lot of people see the piece as very sad,” Teicher added. “Some people find the piece very sentimental or sweet. Or fun. It’s not a literal work. It’s poetry more than it is prose. There are no protagonists. There’s no neat conclusion. To me it has its own feeling.”


More Forever” will be performed at New England Conservatory’s Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre, Jan. 30 and 31, and Feb. 1, and is presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

Sharon Basco Contributor, The ARTery
Sharon Basco is a a journalist, critic and public radio producer.

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