Marshall Davis Jr. talks about dancing with Savion Glover

Tap dancer Marshall Davis Jr. talks about dancing for Savion Glover at the Joyce Theater

Time Out New York: What happened after marching band?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
I went to the University of Central Florida for a very short while. [Laughs] I wanted to major in film technology, but I ended up getting a job in Minnesota [at the Guthrie Theater] with the show Babes in Arms, directed by Garland Wright. It was the first time I met Harold “Stumpy” Cromer. Also, Kristin Chenoweth was in the show. The experience of working with Harold was great. It was one of the coldest winters ever in Minnesota. I’m coming from Miami, and it’s, like, 40 below. My sister came with me to basically take care of me. I played the character of Pocket; Harold’s character’s name was Henry Hunnicut. I was his protégé in the show. Harold came into the rehearsal and basically took over the room for the scene that we had together; he was like, “Look this is what we’re going to do”—he was telling the director and the choreographer—“Marshall, we’re going to come out like this. After we hit this, then we’re going to go into the dialogue. The dialogue is going to set up the song and then we’re in the number.” It was that type of thing. He told me maybe a couple of years ago that the only other person he did that choreography with was his partner, Stump, who was James Cross. I felt honored. I had no idea. He set it up so that at the end of the number he gave me his bowler hat, which was to symbolize passing it on to the younger generation. We got a standing ovation in the middle of the show. We really stopped the show. So that was a really beautiful experience to have shared with him and it helped me understand things about the business. It was eye-opening. And at that time, I didn’t even want to move to New York. He was like, “You’re going to end up moving to New York, so get ready.” After I came back from Minnesota in ’96, but that summer I was in New York. I was dancing with Manhattan Tap for a couple of months with Heather Cornell, and I’ve been here ever since.

Time Out New York: Did you reconnect with Savion?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Yes. I got a call to audition for Noise/Funk [Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk]. I was dancing with Manhattan Tap when I auditioned. They set up the New York Shakespeare Festival Institute of Tap, which was also known as Funk University or Funk U. That was taught by Ted Levy. I left Manhattan Tap to do Funk University and they did Funk U 2, and Ted brought me back as his assistant. During that time, they asked me to go into Bring in ’da Noise.

Time Out New York: What were your feelings about that show?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
When I saw the show, I definitely wanted to be a part of it. The way that Savion and George Wolfe set it up, it was telling the history of African-Americans, but it was also telling the history of the dance and how the music and the dance had evolved. All of it was connected. In order to understand dance and the art, you had to understand what was going on in history at that time and how this art was an expression of what was going on during that period. My students [at Queens College] don’t want to understand what was happening historically; they just want to know who these dancers are and what did they do, but I’m like, You have to understand what was happening, because the art is a expression of what was going on in that period. If you understand what was happening then it’ll make you a better artist. That’s why I enjoyed the show.

Time Out New York: It was a real game changer.
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Definitely. Tap was driving the show and telling the story. The song and the voice were in supporting roles of the dance. It was great just to have that experience to be able to tell that story. A lot people missed the dance aspect of it. It was the story of the dance, which is why the lead character was called ’da Beat. As the Beat changed, time was changing. It went hand in hand.

Time Out New York: Did you work closely with Savion at that point?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Not as much because I joined the show late. But Ted helped out a lot—really training us and preparing us for sustaining that type of energy and performance. Even when I was performing solo, I wouldn’t really do any more than 20 minutes at a time. But to sustain that level of energy, we had to really get in shape.

Time Out New York: And what did you have to learn in terms of dancing?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
With dancing, it was just a lot of stuff because I hadn’t been really learning from anyone, other than doing Heather Cornell’s choreography or Ed Holland’s choreography. A lot of the stuff I was just picking up and learning. My approach was what I learned from Steve and Ed Holland, so now my vocabulary was becoming bigger, and I was learning different approaches to the rhythm. It gave me more avenues. I grew a lot. I told Ted that he was able to help me continue where Steve left off.

Time Out New York: Was Savion close to Steve?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Yes. He said that being there and witnessing it changed his life as well. Steve died for the cause. He was like, This is what I’m going to do. This is what I believe in. He wouldn’t dance all around the stage. He would put down the mike and dance in one spot to make sure he was heard. He wanted people to understand that this is something you should listen to as opposed to it just being visual. It was intentional to bring the focus to the sound. I always tell people, “We have the taps on the shoes for a reason. If you can’t hear us, as artists we lose our voice.” The sound is important and it should be primary, not secondary.

Time Out New York: How long were you in Noise/Funk?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
I did the show until it closed for about a year and a half. I felt it could have kept going. I have a couple of projects I’ve been working on, definitely on that scale but a different approach. I’m trying to do something about Cholly Atkins. It’s a combination of something like Black and Blue meets Jelly’s Last Jam meets Dreamgirls.

Time Out New York: Why did you start performing with Savion?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
Somewhere around 2000, 2001, he started Ti Dii, and he asked me to perform with them. We did stuff at the Joyce and then started coming up with other concepts and it was like, “Hey, do you want to come hang out?” We did the international tour of Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, and we’ve been dancing ever since then together.

Time Out New York: Tell me about STePz.
Marshall Davis Jr.:
It’s his latest brainchild. I think it’s going to be a very interesting show. Something different.

Time Out New York: How so?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
I don’t want to give it all away right now, but I think it’s going to be something people haven’t seen presented in a while and definitely on the level that he’s presenting it. He sets the bar very high, and we’re hoping to maintain that. People will be entertained and learn a lot.

Time Out New York: Is it like the last piece?
Marshall Davis Jr.:
It’s different. Every time he goes to the Joyce, it’s always something different. It’s another great performance.

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