In his most recent production, “SoLe Sanctuary,” tapper Savion Glover credits direction and choreography to “Spirits known.” To Glover’s mind, these “spirits” are the great tap dancers, some deceased, some still dancing, who have carried the art form forward over the years — Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney, Gregory Hines, Sammy Davis Jr., Buster Brown, Dianne Walker, and Honey Coles, to name just a few. “SoLe Sanctuary,” which Celebrity Series of Boston and World Music/CRASHarts present Saturday at the Boston Opera House, is Glover’s homage to them, and it is part memorial, part celebration.
“Every production I do is a tribute to them who have paved the way, but this one speaks directly to that,” Glover, 39, says from his studio in New York. “It’s the first time I actually have their pictures onstage with a voice-over that speaks to their contributions. The show is basically my sanctuary, my place of prayer and honor to them, giving thanks to their existence and everything they’ve contributed to dance and the world. These are people I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with, learn from, and love.”
In “SoLe Sanctuary,” Glover’s stage is a candlelit altar framed by poster-size photos of some of the tap greats, and he positions himself to be a kind of vessel to channel and transform their presence choreographically.
“I’m not here to mimic or copy,” he says, “but through my acknowledgment of them I have no choice but to do something that represents their style. I’ve been told that I have all of those dancers [in my style] because I learned directly from them. That’s just how I am made, like you carry certain mannerisms from your parents. They are always with me in spirit and dance.”
Clocking in at around 80 minutes, the show has changed little conceptually since it debuted in New York in June 2011. Set to a variety of recorded music, it features only one other dancer, Glover’s longtime friend and collaborator, Marshall Davis Jr. A “Star Search” teen dance champion, he performed with Glover in “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk.” Glover says, “He has a similar connection to all these cats, these dancers. He matches that energy of homage and dedication to these dancers.”
Glover calls their work in “SoLe Sanctuary” an ongoing conversation. While some of the sections are choreographed, the vast majority are improvised. “We have down moments, sad moments, then we come into light. We rejoice,” he says. “You’ll never see the same show twice.”
There’s one other person onstage, a solitary figure who sits off to the side and meditates throughout the show. Glover calls it a “random spot,” and it’s occupied by a different person each night, often another dancer or an experienced meditator. For Glover, the role represents different approaches to entering a meditative state, including his own process of spontaneous creativity, which he calls a kind of prayer.
So what does Glover think about as he enters into that realm in performance? He laughs. “I’m thinking why did the Knicks trade Patrick Ewing. I’m thinking about everything from my child to friends to stage people to basketball to am I missing out on the new Jordans. I’m thinking a gazillion things before I actually settle into a state where I’m not thinking. About three to five minutes in, I’m gone. I have entered the monastery of outness.”
Glover credits his mother with launching him on his dance journey, taking him and his brothers to tap classes when he was 7. By age 10, he was starting to be introduced to some of the art form’s legendary performers as a wunderkind. He made his Broadway debut in the title role of “The Tap Dance Kid” at age 12, followed four years later by his film debut in “Tap,” with Hines and Davis. He remains best known for choreographing and starring in the Broadway hit “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,” which earned him numerous awards, including a Tony, two Obies, and a Drama Desk Award.
“I’m still growing, still learning,” he says. “I’m still open and vulnerable enough to know there’s much more to be taught to me and learned by me. I hope I don’t reach my pinnacle on this earth where I think I know it all.”
Celebrity Series president and executive director Gary Dunning says there is little likelihood of Glover resting on his laurels. “Tap really has a long line of traditions being handed down over generations,” Dunning says, “and given the longevity of some master dancers performing into their fifth, sixth, seventh decade, I think what we’re seeing in Savion is the next master. But he’s continuing to evolve and develop and mature, and he’s probably got decades to go. He’s kept the torch alive and he’s taking it even further.”
While “SoLe Sanctuary” is perhaps the most reflective of Glover’s shows, more and more he is starting to value tap’s role in reaching outward as a mode of communication and education. His educational initiative HooFeRzCLuB School for Tap offers classes with an integrative approach to learning tap, involving not just vocabulary and style but music fundamentals, history, and the intricacies of the creative process. Recently, he also invited a group from an adult day care center into his studio, where he performed for them.
“I am realizing and accepting my role as a tap dancer in this world is not only to tap dance for the sake of performance, but through tap dance be able to share and spread a message and congregate with people I would not necessarily be with had it not been for dance,” he says. “Tap is still the central driving force of my life. I think and talk in dance.”