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Subject:Matter dance company honors tap’s history and future in ICA performance

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Subject:Matter dance company honors tap’s history and future in ICA performance
Ian Berg, Subject:Matter founder, company member and choreographer, performs. PHOTO: BRADLEY WAKOFF

Boston-based dance company Subject:Matter conjures works that explore the past, present and future of tap. Its interplay of heritage and innovation was on thrilling display at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston on Oct.20 and 21 in a program that featured the world premier of a 45-minute work, “With Far Hand.”

Presented by Global Arts Live, the show opened with “Songbook (Excerpts),” a 20-minute segment from Subject:Matter’s 2019 work “Songbook,” choreographed to selections from the Great American Songbook and inspired by Boston tap dance legend Leon Collins (1922-1985). After years as a star tapper with big bands, Collins moved to Boston and studied music at Berklee. Collins opened a studio in Roxbury with Boston’s “first lady of song,” Mae Arnette (1931-2023), and then ran his own studio in Brookline. Master tap dancer Dianne Walker, his former student, taught the Collins repertoire to generations of dancers.

Ian Berg, Subject:Matter founder, company member and choreographer, performs. PHOTO: BRADLEY WAKOFF

“All of us studied with Dianne,” said Subject:Matter founder Ian Berg, speaking by phone a week before the ICA shows. “At the heart of what is so beautiful about the repertoire of Leon Collins is how it activates listeners’ ears to the sound of tap dance as music.”

Following the hummable tunes of “Songbook” came the less familiar but compelling soundscape of “With Far Hand,” written and arranged by Berg and composer/drummer André Sudol. The new work casts the dancers in robust dialogue with the instrumentalists, whom Berg spoke of as “non-dancing musicians.”

“We create works that are 100% dance and 100% music,” said Berg, who founded Subject:Matter in 2015. He teaches tap at Emerson College and Tufts University and recently earned a master’s degree in music from the Berklee Global Jazz Institute. “I completed my thesis with tap as my only instrument,” he said. “‘With Far Hand’ comes out of my thesis.”   

At the ICA, Berg shared the stage with Samantha Emmond and Jackson Clayton, Subject:Matter members since 2016, and six luminaries of the Boston jazz community.   

Performing “Songbook (Excerpts),” the three tappers formed a sextet with bassist Max Ridley, pianist Zahili Zamora and drummer Julian Miltenberger. They opened with an easy, swinging conversation to “Mack the Knife” and continued with a medley that included cuts from Jesse Greer’s “Just You, Just Me” and Gershwin’s “But Not for Me.”

As they performed “With Far Hand,” the sextet became a nonet, joined by Zoe Murphy on trumpet, Gregory George Groover Jr. on tenor saxophone, and Matt Parker on soprano saxophone, bass clarinet and flute. The band sat at an angle so they could see the dancers, and the audience could see their faces as they responded to each dancer’s movements and tapping feet.

While solos are improvised, they are rooted in formidably intricate choreography. Citing postmodern dance pioneer Trisha Brown (1936-2017) as among his influences, Berg said, “The entire performance is like chamber music, meticulously timed so different steps, rhythms and motifs lock into each other.”

Describing his process, he said, “Casting comes first. I make dances around people. It’s a decadent process, taking hours and hours and hours of trial-and-error effort. Samantha and Jackson are my two best friends. What I choreograph for each of them will not be for any other dancer.”

Onstage for a post-performance talk, Clayton humorously agreed, saying, “We spend an unreasonable amount of time. It’s just not right,” and Emmond added, “The time is key. We share a brain. We talk in code.”

arts, dance, Subject:Matter, tap dance