Tap dancer and choreographer Sebastian Weber works with director and film maker Stéphane Bittoun (Frankfurt) on a new piece. It is the first tap dance production that is funded in the context of „Tanzfonds Erbe“ by the German Federal Cultural Foundation. For Sebastian, it is a extraordinary honor, but also a notable obligation. GERMAN TAP interviewed him shortly before the final rehearsals begin.
Sebastian, your new piece is called „The Legend of Syd O’Noo“. Who the heck is Syd O’Noo?
Syd O’Noo is the genius, but totally forgotten tap dancer, whose traces our protagonist unearths. He was a contemporary of icons like Chuck Green and Baby Laurence, he hung out with the inventors of the Bebop on 52nd street. I think, he was a drug addict and a difficult guy, but apparently he danced better than everybody else. And he is gone. The material of legends!
Did this Syd O’Noo really exist or is that an invention for your play?
Let’s say: we are doing a production about legends and you never know precisely what is true and what is made up with legends. Could Bojangles Robinson really run backwards faster than every athletic professional forwards? Has King Rastus Brown really tapped off the stage and across the street to a bar and back during standing ovations of the audience? The jazz history is full of stories like these! And with our play we reflect about the relevance of this story telling.
So we are doing our own story telling. In thrillers it says often: „The story is fictional. Any resemblance with living people is purely coincidentally.“ For us it is exactly the other way around: the people are real, all ingredients are authentic. But we arrange them in a way, that it becomes fiction anyway. We mix truth and fiction, because it belongs to the topic of „legends“.
You say, you are doing „story telling“. How can I picture this? That doesn’t sound like a regular tap concert.
No, you are right: our piece is a wild mixture of drama, film, dance and live music. The pure amount of dancing is not thaaat big. On the one hand, there is this plot about a has-been tap dancer, who goes to New York during a creative crisis to draw some inspiration from his old mentor and then gets on the tracks of this tap legend Syd O’Noo. This is told pretty classically through acting. But a lot of travel experiences and encounters of the protagonist you see in film projections. And then everything is interwoven with tap dance and live music.
And where do the movies come from? Did you film them yourselves?
Yes, we made a fantastic trip to the United States and interviewed real experts of tap dance. The conversations were about dance heritage, the relationship of student and master, about our dialogue partners‘ memory of their role models and mentors. That is essentially the fundamental theme of the play: how is knowledge passed on in a dance form that actually doesn’t maintain a repertoire. What is really important? The steps? Something different? Does that change? How does the student deal with this heritage?
Who did you interview?
We had Maurice Hines, who already toured with „Hines, Hines & Dad“ as a little boy, in front of the camera. We spent a lot of time with Brenda Bufalino, who was Honi Coles‘ partner for many years. Robert Reed was an enormously generous dialogue partner. I was deeply shocked, when he died suddenly a few weeks after our interview. There were many others. An absolute highlight was the visit with Prince Spencer of the Four Step Brothers. A man, whose body is so old, he can barely walk, but who has so much dance in him, that he shines from within. It touched me very much to meet him. I even danced for him. Alone for this, everything was worth it.
How did that work? Did you just call and say that you want to drop by?
Most of the time, yes. Some I already knew for a long time, there it was easy. You can also see that in the conversations. For example, I have had many inspiring moments with Brenda. I value her very much and she knows that. So when the camera starts, you enter on a high level. With some I haven’t had any contact yet, but they knew who I was. That helped. And sometimes it also was a bit tedious. We had to accept a few refusals. Actually, when I think back now, I realize, that I already suppressed, how much work and stress it was.
Your protagonist is a German tap dancer in his mid 40s, who raves about the tap dance legend Chuck Green. Is that a self portrait?
No, the play is defenitely not a self portrait. That would be way to boring. But my co-author Stéphane Bittoun and I, we obviously write about things, which matter to us and which we know. Our protagonist is in a crisis: he thinks he is not successful enough. He can barely make ends meet, is asking himself, if he should quit dancing, wants more acknowledgement. A lot of artists my age recognize this. Many dancers give up their job in the middle years. The ones who continue have to grow with their art. This process is interesting to me. At the beginning you are a student, at the very end maybe a master- but what happens in between?
This Stéphane Bittoun: who is that? It is already the second time that you work with him.
Exactly. Stéphane is a fantastic director from Frankfurt. He is also a theater author and film maker. He develops his own pieces out of topics, that interest him and mixes all kinds of genres in his work. In this we are very similar. But unlike me, he is an absolute ace concerning acting! Very detail oriented, with strong pictures. I love that and learn a lot from him.
That’s why we’re working together again: the last production „Synchronzeugen“ was a first becoming acquainted. We had to find out, how our methods fit together, where we complement each other, where we are in each others way. That was a painstaking, but still a very creative process. After that I thought: we have to continue there! Now that we tilled the field, I want to harvest as well! This crazy kind of musical, that is exactly the opposite of musical- that is worth the pain!
You have been writing the play for half a year, have been filming, travelling…what did you learn about „dance heritage“?
With a heritage it’s usually the case, that the ancestor accumulates a fortune and when he dies, his assets are passed on to his children. For example, they get a house and can see, what they do with it.
With „dance heritage“ – at least in tap dance – it’s different: the ancestor hardly passes on specific steps or repertoire. He inspires his successors. He plants a seed, that later blossoms. Sometimes the master doesn’t necessarilly chooses his students. But this doesn’t minimize his legacy, it rather multiplies it. The heritage develops by being passed on.
In retrospective – also on the conversations with our interview partners – I sometimes have the feeling, that many of the „old masters“ didn’t think of themselves as great artists. Some were very critical towards new ideas. And so I ask myself: what part, of what we see in these masters, is really there and what is projected into them? What is really from them, what comes from us? For me, that’s a new perspective on this matter.
And I realized, how much it can matter to the masters as well to have somebody who comes to them, asks questions, is interested in them. Story-telling is really pivotal and it always takes two: one who tells the stories and one who listens.
Somehow I got more awed by the tradition but at the same time more independent from it.
Opening night of the production „The Legend of Syd O’Noo“ is on November 19th 2015 at LOFFT Leipzig. More performances in Leipzig, Berlin and Cologne. Schedule and infos at www.syd-o-noo.de/en.