The Real Story: Chicago Tap Theatre’s “Sweet Tap Chicago” with Mark Yonally
Art is a powerful tool. It can be used to convey a message or idea, but it also has the power to help us discover who we are, to understand our fellow human beings and to make sense of the world around us. It can bridge the barriers of language, of culture and of circumstance to bring us together, even if just for one night. The abstract nature of art, especially dance, can also act as a tool for healing, for understanding problems and finding creative solutions. But dance also has the power to revive our memories, to allow us to rediscover and stay connected to our roots – to keep us grounded in the midst of chaos and progress. With any art or endeavor, a thorough knowledge of history enhances creative trajectory and evolution; the result is a product that pays homage to the past and embraces the future. This is what the artists of Chicago Tap Theatre bring to City Winery Chicago with Sweet Tap Chicago.
This connection to his personal history is an essential part of educating and nurturing the growth of the current and upcoming generation of tap artists and gives audiences the opportunity to discover tap in one of its original homes.
As Chicago Tap Theatre continues on its upward trajectory and journeys to larger theaters, Artistic Director and Founder Mark Yonally continues to preserve the foundation of its legacy and encourages the company’s roots to grow deeper. He does this through productions like Sweet Tap Chicago, which takes the artists out of 800+ seat theaters and back into the place integral to Mark’s journey in tap – a jazz club. This connection to his personal history is an essential part of educating and nurturing the growth of the current and upcoming generation of tap artists and gives audiences the opportunity to discover tap in one of its original homes.
DancerMusic Dance Editor Kristi Licera caught up with Mark Yonally to learn more about his personal history with tap and how that history is tied to Sweet Tap Chicago and Chicago Tap Theatre’s aesthetic and spirit. Here’s what he told us:
The jazz scene in Kansas City is stellar, and I was lucky to spend time tapping with people like Claude Fiddler Williams and Jay McShann, who worked directly with Count Basie. This education gave me a love and understanding of jazz music that I work hard to convey to our audience and my students.
Kristi Licera: You shared with us that you discovered your love of rhythm tap and refined your style growing up in Kansas City. Can you tell us more about your involvement in Kansas City’s vibrant jazz scene and how that carries through to the production of “Sweet Tap Chicago” today?
Mark Yonally: Growing up, the style of dance that turned me on was rhythm tap or jazz tap, mostly inspired by African American artists from the 1920’s-1960’s, but there was nothing like that offered in Kansas City.
I was fortunate to have parents that actively looked for opportunities for me. They took me to the few Tap Dance Festivals that existed at that time, where I had the amazing opportunity to study with people like Buster Brown, Honi Coles, Jimmy Slyde and so many others. But at a certain point, I’d return home, where the tap dancing was amazing (and I had great local teachers, including Shirley Guffey, Paula Lang, Deanna Olson and Steve Anthony) but more centered on a Musical Theatre approach to tap dance. While there were no other dancers doing rhythm dance, I found a community of Jazz musicians that I could hang out with, perform, jam and LEARN. The jazz scene in Kansas City is stellar, and I was lucky to spend time tapping with people like Claude Fiddler Williams and Jay McShann, who worked directly with Count Basie. This education gave me a love and understanding of jazz music that I work hard to convey to our audience and my students.
Mark: When I was looking for a college to complete my degree, I sent out audition videos to several programs. Most responded and said they didn’t offer the kind of tap I did. But then I got a phone call from Bill Evans, at the University of New Mexico. He offered me an opportunity to dance in his storied dance company while finishing my degree. That meant I was able to spend weekly time in the studio with Bill directly, soaking up everything he offered, begin to develop my own choreographic voice, and experience performing and touring with a professional company. This was my introduction to concert tap dance, and Bill was a lovely mentor to experience all of this under.
After experiencing both tap dance in jazz clubs, and then the concert stage, I moved to Chicago (after a jaunt to Oklahoma City University as their inaugural Rhythm Tap professor). Initially I moved here to dance with Especially Tap Chicago (now called Cartier Collective, and due for a reunion show any day now, hint hint). That was a marvelous experience in many ways but wasn’t quite scratching the specific itch to create that I was feeling.
In the same way that having songs that are sung by the characters in a musical conveys emotion differently than having characters talk about their emotions in a play does, I believe that the unique ability to make music with our feet while moving through space gives us opportunities to tell a story in a very specific and satisfying way
Mark: In 2002 I traveled to Paris to complete a month-long teaching engagement, thanks to one of my mentors (and former Chicago tap dancer!) Sarah Petronio. While there, I had a lot of time to myself to sit and think about what I really wanted to do with my life. I made the decision that the only way to stay in Chicago was to really create something that I could invest in and develop into something that reflected my personal values and priorities within tap dance as a genre.
Part of that was my desire to fuse story telling and tap dance together in a meaningful way, with stories that reflected contemporary culture and pop culture; so, we started experimenting with ways to do that. Always, the question for me was, “What can tap dance do in telling a story that a play, or film, or even a story ballet, cannot do as well?” In the same way that having songs that are sung by the characters in a musical conveys emotion differently than having characters talk about their emotions in a play does, I believe that the unique ability to make music with our feet while moving through space gives us opportunities to tell a story in a very specific and satisfying way. Our most recent original Story Show, TimeSteps (a Time Travel Love Tragedy), won the Best New Production of 2016 from the Dance Magazine Reader’s Poll in 2016.
It’s worth noting that Chicago is in many ways a leader in narrative dance productions and pieces. From the day I moved here I was aware of the work of Billy Siegenfeld and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. He was creating 10-minute gems that convey emotion, are rhythmically deep, and often quite moving for the audience (I dare you to watch Poppy and Lou and not cry). I also immediately became a fan of the work of Chicago Dance Crash, who were also mining pop culture to create exciting, surprising evenings of dance and story. They became a sister company to CTT, and a source of constant inspiration. Most recently, Melissa Thodos did multiple works that explored the ability of dance to convey character and narrative, to astounding effect.
While large spaces offer chances for spectacle, big movements and the loudest applause, the tiny details can get a little lost. That was part of the reason I wanted to take CTT back to the jazz club…
Mark: At the same time, CTT has been lucky to grow in almost every way, season after season. One aspect of this is that, other than our Story Shows (which typically run 9 or more performances in 200 seat theaters) we are regularly now performing in 800+ seat houses, both in Chicago and on tour. This is awesome (and fun!) but a little something gets lost in the large spaces.
That “something” is intimacy: the ability for the dancers, musicians and audience to share a quiet conversation for an hour and a half or so. While large spaces offer chances for spectacle, big movements and the loudest applause, the tiny details can get a little lost. That was part of the reason I wanted to take CTT back to the jazz club last year for our 15th Anniversary Season. That connection, between space, sound, movement, is heightened and enlarged in a 300-seat music venue in a way that it can’t be in a larger proscenium space.
We did make one very important discovery last year: a small space without raised seating meant that a few patrons couldn’t see our feet clearly. This year we will be doing live, real-time video projection of the entire stage, so that no matter where one sits you will not miss a single subtle step, or sly look from a musician to a dancer, or the quiet, “hey, let’s take it back to the head” from dancer to musician (during one of the improvised pieces).
After 9 years of productions that had live music when allowed by the budget, I made the critical decision that live music was too central to the tap experience to not have.
Kristi: “Sweet Tap Chicago” not only features the talented dance artists of Chicago Tap Theatre, but also puts a spotlight on a live jazz band. The band features Chicago-based musicians Taylor Mallory and JC Brooks, as well as collection of established session musicians and multi-talented vocalists. Can you tell us more about the musicians and the process of curating the music for “Sweet Tap Chicago”?
Mark: The biggest artistic shift for Chicago Tap Theatre came about seven years ago. After 9 years of productions that had live music when allowed by the budget, I made the critical decision that live music was too central to the tap experience to not have. From that point on, CTT has always performed exclusively to live music. What’s even better is that, being in Chicago, we have access to titans of music, led by our Music Director Kurt Schweitz.
It’s one of those bands that makes my job easy as a tap dancer, and I can trust that they will give me something that will inspire me choreographically.
The band features Chicago-based musicians Taylor Mallory and JC Brooks, who are both recording artists in their own right, as well as a collection of established musicians and multi-talented vocalists. I knew of both Taylor and JC before I was lucky enough to work with them. We had worked with them individually on shows here and on tour, but we never had an opportunity to bring them together from the beginning to create something new. What’s fun is that we have been developing more pieces that re-contextualize the relationship between band and dancer, as the vocalists often join the choreography, and the dancers occasionally take on the secondary percussion role. At the same time, there are still pieces that show the wit and character that we’re known for, including the saddest birthday party ever to Smashing Pumpkins.
We’ve worked with all of the members of this band long enough that we can be amazingly precise in our moments of music/dance collaboration, while still leaving room for improvisation and surprise.
Mark: It’s one of those bands that makes my job easy as a tap dancer, and I can trust that they will give me something that will inspire me choreographically. I think a lot of dancers are afraid of dancing to live music because of the unpredictability of it, but I don’t have to worry about that with this band. We’ve worked with all of the members of this band long enough that we can be amazingly precise in our moments of music/dance collaboration, while still leaving room for improvisation and surprise.
To sum up, Sweet Tap Chicago is a rare chance to see us up close and personal, in a venue with an AMAZING wine, local beer and craft cocktail list and really, really good food. The band alone is worth the price of admission, and we’re working hard to bring a “best of” selection of dances spanning the past few years, along with some new pieces that will blow you away (wait till you see the new all-men piece choreographed by Kirsten Uttich!!). Please note that even though they sell amazing drinks, this is an ALL-AGES show. Music will run the gamut from Herbie Hancock to Chance the Rapper, to Sam Cooke to Chaka Kahn.
Chicago Tap Theatre presents Sweet Tap Chicago at City Winery Chicago (1200 W. Randolph Street
Chicago 60607). Performances are for all ages and take place Sunday, March 10 at 3pm and 7pm.
Tickets to are available online at citywinery.com/chicago. Tickets can also be purchased at the City Winery Box Office Monday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. or by calling 312-733-WINE (9463).
To learn more about Chicago Tap Theatre, visit chicagotaptheatre.com.