The extraordinary tap dancers of Les Femmes Plus have delighted audiences at Lincoln Center and other venues throughout the tri-state area with their witty, lively, eclectic performances. The group is one of the featured companies in the second annual Brooklyn Dance Festival, which will take place Saturday, May 4 and Sunday, May 5 at the Actors Fund Arts Center in downtown Brooklyn.
In the interview below, Artistic Director and Choreographer Germaine Salsberg discusses her modern dance roots, her favorite hoofers, and more.
What piece are you performing at The Brooklyn Dance Festival and what is the idea or inspiration behind it?
We’re performing a new piece called, tentatively called Time Off. The first two sections are set to Dave Brubeck’s music, and the third section has been a journey! It’s part of a project my husband Artis Smith and I are doing at Brooklyn College, where he is a dance professor. We produce an annual dance concert there and are collaborating with composition students in their Masters program. The composer for my piece, Jack Horowitz, had never composed for tap dance, so we worked together to determine the dramatic images and shape the piece. The result is an unusual but very exciting piece of music — not your typical tap music.
What is your dance background?
I was a modern dancer for many years and came to New York from Toronto with dreams of being in the Martha Graham company. I danced with Toronto Dance Theatre for seven years, performing in Toronto and touring across Canada, the U.S., and Europe. My strict Graham training loosened up a bit after I came to New York and studied with different teachers.
How has your modern dance training influenced your approach to tap?
Because I was a modern dancer for years before I tap danced, and before that an actress as a child, it has always been important for me to have some kind of movement or dramatic motif for a piece. So while my approach to tap is very musical, I’m always considering what I want my work to say to an audience. My repertoire includes a variety of styles, from pieces where we talk all the way through and create our own score, to classical swing, to more funky pieces. Choreographic construction is really important to me. That’s something I learned from great modern choreographers like Martha Graham and Paul Taylor.
Who were your mentors, and who are the dancers or choreographers you find inspiring today?
The directors of the Toronto Dance Theatre in Canada came from Martha Graham’s company in New York, so our work was very grounded in Graham technique and her style had a great influence on me. I also love Paul Taylor and ballet choreographer Anthony Tudor. I didn’t really have any tap mentors when I first started studying and sadly had to learn a lot by the seat of my pants. Fortunately, I eventually studied with the amazing Danny Daniels, who choreographed The Tap Dance Kid and Pennies From Heaven, and worked with him on Tap Dance Kid, as well as assisting him in classes. I learned a lot about choreography and how to construct a number from him.
Tap dancers I admire include Jimmy Slyde and the Copasetics for their ability to do great stuff and entertain at the same time. Brenda Bufalino has helped me a great deal choreographically, and the wonderful Paris-based Sarah Petronio inspired me to improvise and find my own voice. I love Gregory Hines for his craft and his ability to connect with an audience. Henry Le Tang was also very encouraging. He observed my classes in New York several years ago and said, “Great stuff!” Michelle Dorrance and Andrew Nemr are some of the young tap choreographers I find exciting, and I’ve always been in awe of Bob Fosse. Even when I didn’t like his work, I loved it! He had the courage to put his vision out there, and his commitment to his vision always inspires me.
You were a child star growing up in Canada. Details, please!
I wouldn’t say I was a star, but I was an actress. I took drama lessons every Saturday with Marjorie Purvey, who taught Lloyd Bridges and William Shatner. That was where I really came alive, in acting class. I didn’t feel odd and out of place as I did in real life. I started doing radio and television shows, and really enjoyed it. But when I became a teen, I guess my desire to enjoy real life became stronger than my interest in pursuing an acting career.
Who are your favorite hoofers from classic movie musicals, and why?
I show a series of musicals and concert tap to my students at LIU and NYU each semester and am always struck by the sense of commitment those amazing performers put into their dancing. Ann Miller — energetic, positive, a wonder. Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain – 17 years old, her first movie and terrified! Donald O’Connor — a fabulous dancer and funny man. He and Gene Kelly doing “Fit as a Fiddle” – wow! Fred Astaire moved like no one else. His hands, sense of movement, and rhythms were magical. Fayard Nicholas is the best! Will there ever be another Nicholas Brothers? Who could achieve that kind of artistry today? Another favorite: Bill Robinson and Jeni LeGon in Hooray for Love.
Most played songs on your iPod?
Mostly class songs, lots of jazz, and also Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, and Gladys Knight and the Pips. I guess that gives my age away!
Do you have any hobbies or special interests outside of dance?
I have many hobbies, but I’ve spent the most time on fibre work, knitting, hand spinning, and weaving. I’ve been knitting since I was seven years old and used to be in a professional guild here in the city. I was quite industrious when I first moved to New York. I would knit sweaters out of odd bits and pieces of yarn and people started buying them. Before I knew it I was making hundreds of special order, one-of-a-kind sweaters. But it’s very time consuming, so now I just knit for fun. When I slow down, I hope to have time to do some serious knitting again. In the meantime, you can see some examples of my work on my website.
To learn more about the Brooklyn Dance Festival or to purchase tickets, visit brooklyndancefestival.org. And check out our Facebook page for the latest Festival news, artist interviews, and more.
Interview conducted by Elisa Lichtenbaum. A Senior Writer at Thirteen/WNET New York, Elisa has written articles on subjects ranging from Woody Allen to Downton Abbey. She studies tap dance with Germaine Salsberg.