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Boston-based tap dance company Subject:Matter makes ‘Songbook’ sing

SOMERVILLE — Barely seven years old, Boston tap company Subject:Matter has already performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art (it did “Expensive Nail Polish Dries Fast” as part of Global Arts Live’s 2017 “Dance UP”), at the Museum of Fine Arts, and on the Inside/Outside stage at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. On Saturday at Somerville Theatre’s Crystal Ballroom, Global Arts Live gave the company an evening to itself, and the three tappers and three musicians delivered handsomely.

The Crystal Ballroom was an ideal venue for the show, replicating the nightclub atmosphere in which tap flourished in the 1920s and ‘30s. The program was called “Songbook,” and the first half offered six improvised group pieces and three improvised solos on selections from the Great American Songbook, as performed by Max Ridley on bass, Tyson Jackson on drums, and Chase Morrin on piano. Some numbers, like “If I Were a Bell” and “Just You, Just Me,” started out as actual songs; some, like Charlie Parker’s “Billie’s Bounce” and Miles Davis’s “Seven Steps to Heaven,” are instrumental standards. The program notes listed 61 individuals as “Contributors,” referring to the inspiration provided by previous performers of this material, but the first two were Boston tap legend Leon Collins (“Tap is music”), who used to jam with Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and Collins’s student Dianne Walker, who continues to teach his style.

The three members of Subject:Matter who tapped at the Crystal — Ian Berg, Jackson Clayton, and Samantha Emmond — were indeed musicians. Their feet were instruments the same way Ella Fitzgerald’s scatting is the horn on her version of “Billie’s Bounce.” They led off with a relaxed arrangement of “Mack the Knife,” dancing in loose unison before breaking into solos. Berg, after greeting the audience, paid tribute to Collins and Walker (who was in the house), and to Davis, Fitzgerald, and Thelonious Monk, whose work dominated the selections.


It was hard to tell whether the band was leading the tappers or vice versa as everyone experimented with rhythm, meter, tempo, accents, weight, syncopation. Berg started his solo (“Have You Met Miss Jones”) a cappella and with a suggestion of soft-shoe. One moment he’d be pitter-pattering, hardly moving above the ankles; the next he’d be whirling and galumphing about the stage. There’s a goofy, mischievous, exuberant quality to his dancing. Clayton (“I’m Confessin’ That I Love You”) was more grounded, acrobatic, openly virtuosic; his work could seem almost angry if it weren’t for the big smile on his face. Emmond (“In Walked Bud”) had the most swing to her steps, with an insinuating upper body that appeared to be looking for someone to tap-lindy or tap-tango with.


The band members, collaborators rather than just back-up, chimed in with solos of their own. The tapping tempo was mostly upbeat, but the highlight might have been the slow segment of “But Not for Me” where the dancers, a cappella, seemed to tap out the melody of the Gershwin classic.

After close to an hour of continuous tapping, Clayton announced that they’d be taking a 15-minute intermission “to dry off.” When they came back, Berg and Clayton had changed into less formal untucked shirts, but Emmond, now sporting chunky heels, looked to have gone in the other direction. This concluding part of the show was labeled simply “Second set (improvised).” The band struck up “Take the A Train,” hinted at “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” before sliding into “Misty,” then wrapped up with “It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing.” The tapping went on for another half-hour, and though you might have thought you’d already seen everything these dancers had to offer, that was emphatically not the case.



Performed by Subject:Matter. Presented by Global Arts Live. At: Crystal Ballroom at the Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Saturday Feb. 5.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.