A Place at the Table, Tap into America, Music with Teeth

After her father George died, Mira Nakashima inherited his shop and set to work continuing the artistic legacy of a master craftsman in wood. Despite only occasional glimpses of the mainstream, tap dance remains an iconic American art form. With custom-composed pieces employing a staggering range of vocal styles, Roomful of Teeth makes music that can be difficult to define.

AIRED: April 05, 2017 | 0:26:47

- [Narrator] Coming up,

despite only occasional glimpses of the mainstream,

tap dance remains an iconic American art form.

- This is the way the dance looks because this is how

you have to articulate it to hear it this way.

That's what's exciting about tap dancing.

- [Narrator] With custom composed pieces employing

a staggering range of vocal styles.

Roomful of Teeth makes music

that can be difficult to define.

- We come into it and we say, I am open,

I'm ready to throw my mind and heart and body into this.

- [Narrator] And after her father George died,

Mira Nakashima inherited his shop

and set to work continuing the artistic legacy

of a master craftsman in wood.

- When I'm drawing a piece of wood I like to go stand in

front of the piece of wood itself because it speaks to me.

- [Narrator] That's all ahead, on Articulate.

(relaxing guitar music)

(fast tap dance music)

- [Narrator] Nothing exemplifies American

multi-culturalism or multi-tasking like tap.

And for dancers, it's like nothing else.

- It's like an addiction that never dies.

It just (laughing), there's always another thing to try,

to practice, like another inspiration that you get

and it just takes hold.

- There's nothing quite like using your body to make music.

- Every time I walk down the street I gotta tun, tun, tun,

you know I got something going on in my head.

- That this instrument is on your feet

and that we are so responsible for every single movement.

You can hear the nuance of every single one

of those moments, it's exceptional.

- [Tap Person] Be careful.

- [Narrator] Michelle Dorrance is among the most

exceptional contemporary exponents of tap.

A 2016 MacArthur Genius Award winner,

she's doing things that have never been tried before

with this more than century old art form.

- I think of the origins of hip-hop, the origins

of breaking specifically are rooted in tap dance,

particularly the Nicholas Brothers.

A lot of the footwork and a lot

of like vernacular movement if you will.

So, like vernacular jazz which is also rooted

in tap dance slash existed alongside tap dance,

played into house and hip-hop and a lot

of these cultures that are club and street forms now.

So, I love seeing the way the footwork

from this form influenced that form

and then cycling it back into tap dance,

so that you can see this aesthetic that might

feel contemporary or street or these things.

But, really it's rooted in this form.

(blues music)

- [Narrator] And the roots of tap like those of the blues,

can be traced back to the plantation.

- They're the first american art forms.

You know blues as the, or spirituals into blues

and the early percussive dance and then tap dance.

So these are the two trajectories

of the original american forms.

- [Narrator] And just as the blues was an expression

of the deepest human angst, tap connected dancers

with that most intuitive of percussion instruments,

the human body.


Robert Burden is a senior statesman of American tap,

having been mentored directly by the 20th century master,

LaVaughn Robinson.

He says that unlike other dancers whose only concern

is movement, tappers are also musicians.

- So you can't forget about the basic side,

you can't forget about the showing it off side.

But, first things first, it better sound good.

- This is the dance of the creation

of those sounds and that's exciting.

Like my mentor Gene Medler from North Carolina,

always says the form follows the function

and I repeat this constantly because that's what's

exciting about tap dance.

This is the way the dance looks because this is how

you have to articulate it to hear it this way.

(clapping and tapping)

(piano and tapping)

- You have to push yourself very hard

to become a musician and to be accountable

for timing, for tempo, for sound.

- [Narrator] Pam Hetherington, having also learned

at the feet of LaVaughn Robinson,

is acutely aware that since it's beginning,

tap has endured as one of America's few

truly cross cultural pursuits.

- American tap dance which is an art form comes

from a different blend of many cultures, but mainly

African american influences and Irish influences.

- So Irish indentured servants and maybe also some Scots

were the only whites quartered with slaves, period.

That's it, that's one point of origin.

And then you have areas like the Five Points neighborhood

here in New York where you know, Irish were called blacks.

You know, you look at that cross cultural thing

that was happening in the 1800s and you're like oh wow.

- So you see a lot of early tap dance

was very up on the toes,

that comes directly from Irish step dancing influences.

- And then you have syncopated African musical sensibility

and movement and approach to the floor.

You also have groups of people who can't communicate

except through this.

So you have that immediate blending of culture

and also communication based around something

that doesn't involve words, so that's also powerful.

- [Narrator] And just as the blues would morph

into mainstream popular music, so too would

tap become a mainstay of popular entertainment.

First in clubs and vaudeville shows, later in the movies.

It tops organic evolution and is continuing away

from the spotlight on the streets

of cities like Philadelphia.

- People would compete at different street corners

and you would compete at these various, I guess

like lesser second tier street corners,

and the corner you wanted to get to,

to compete was Broad and South Street.

And if you got to Broad and South Street and you won,

you were the best hoofer in the city.

- [Narrator] And the competitive spirit

of these street corners would also define

how tap was passed down.

- You had to have the eye and the ear at the same time

(snapping) and pick it up quick,

and then have the ability to change it a little bit

so if somebody said you stole my step, you'd be like no,

your step was like this, this is how I did it.

That little nuance changed everything.

- [Narrator] And even in more formal settings

like the classroom of the late great LaVaughn Robinson,

you had to stay on your toes to pick it up.

- He never got up to the front of the room

and was like this is how you do a shuffle.

He just did it, he was like that's the sound,

that's what you're trying to achieve.

- So he would go,

(tapping sound effects and snapping)

that would be us.

So it was like a call and response.

- You know if you were able to grab that

while you were there, good for you,

but if you missed it, hope you were listening.


- [Narrator] Throughout it's history tap has been

pronnounced dead or dying on many occasions.

But, every generation seems to find

a new way to connect with it.

Whether it's Sammy Davis Junior in the 1960s,

Gregory Hines, who would become a bonafide

international star in the 1980s,

or Stomp, the 1990s Broadway phenomena

that featured a young Michelle Dorrance.

And now in her mid 30s, she's at an age when dancers

from other genres are facing retirement, but for Dorrance,

like for many tap dancers, her best days may well lie ahead.

- We die with our shoes on man.

So, you know people are still tap dancing into their 90s.

Yes, your approach will change and shift

and there will be things that I ask someone to do

that I won't necessarily do or maybe I won't even want

to do them anymore soon, five, ten, how ever many years.

But, I'll learn that as it comes.

(hip-hop music and tapping)

(whooping, cheering, and applauding)

(relaxing guitar music)

(distinct singing)

- [Narrator] We've never heard music like this before.

Perhaps because there's never really been music

like this before, nor a group like Room Full of Teeth,

which almost defies definition.

- It's this band, it's this vocal ensemble, octet.


- [Narrator] It's actually a eight member vocal ensemble

founded in 2009 by conductor, singer,

and composer, Brad Wells.

Every year since then, they've met here at the MASS MoCA,

in the small town of North Adams, Massachusets,

to learn new vocal techniques

and to collaborate with composers.

This is a room full of talented musicians,

but what is a Room Full of Teeth?

- I was looking for a less sort of highbrow term

for chamber, chamber music cause we're vocal chamber music,

so I'm thinking chamber, room, vocal, mouth, teeth,

I like how relatively permanent teeth are right up

against this breath and voice that disappears

as soon as we say or sing.

- You wanted to put together a small group

of very talented musicians, to do what?

- To explore what the voice could do in an unapologetic way.


The definition of musical sounds

for the voice is a very generous one.


- Within one Room Full of Teeth concert I will have

to sing in my operatic voice,

I will have to sing a shredding rock goddess solo.


I will have to sing very very straight tone, high, ethereal.

I will have to then throat sing.

- [Narrator] Yes, to then throat singing.

It's just one of the exotic vocal techniques

the group has studied with experts brought

in from around the world.

(throat singing)

At the feet of these masters,

the group can ask questions that go beyond

the practical aspects of creating sounds.

- How does their craft work for them in their culture,

in their bodies, in their traditions?

And humbly learn what we can, not trying

to be Tuvan throat singers, but trying to see

how it feels to sing alongside of them,

how does your voice shift if you're trying

to approximate what they do with the hints they give you.

What can you do, what's possible?

- Trying to see what it is in our own bodies

and our own training that can make those beautifully

expressive sounds, maybe not well enough to be

at the highest levels of each of those individual worlds,

but we want to see what that sounds like in our voice,

what that journey is like towards that in our own

individual bodies and how that can serve the beauty

of the music that has been written for us.

(throat singing)

- [Narrator] The most successful composition written

for Room Full of Teeth came from one of its own members.

In 2013, Caroline Shaw's partita for eight voices

made her the youngest ever winner

of the Pulitzer Prize for Music.


The piece which was also on the group's

Grammy winning debut CD had its genesis

in a typical Room Full of Teeth vocal experiment.

- I said okay, can everyone sing this chord (singing),

that's a third of the chord and then go from vocal fry

which is (throaty sound),

so like we'd go from this group of vocal fry to (singing),

just to see if that would work,

and then from there found this core progression

that I really identified with

and kind of used that to shape it.


It came from this place and these people

and the particular character of those weeks,

the conversations that we were having,

even if it didn't become directly a part of the piece,

was a real catalyst for my own thinking, so.


- [Narrator] And rather than being an anomaly,

the intimate nature of this process

is typical for Room Full of Teeth.

- We're very lucky to have composers who are writing

for us and saying no I'm interested

in that sound specifically in your voice.

- [Narrator] While most classical ensembles

have fluid memberships, Room Full of Teeth

has since its inception been comprised

of the same eight singers.

- We've all dedicated ourselves so much

to being a band and a family.

- I like that you used the phrase band

cause that's what it really feel like.

- That's how we feel about ourselves, yeah.

We definitely feel like a band,

we have our music that's written for our voices.

- It doesn't say for some soprano,

it says Esteli on the score and we have this chance

to have a say in what works and what doesn't.

That doesn't happen very often.

- [Narrator] Outside of rock, there are few groups

whose repertoire is so constantly changing.

So from the get go, flexibility,

and voice, and in personality

was a prerequisite for membership says founder Brad Wells.

- Could I imagine them going from an expert

to a beginner and being okay with being a beginner

for some length of time?

- We trust each other I think more so than you would

in another ensemble where you're coming together

as badasses and we got this.

It's different than that, there's an immediate vulnerability

and every year coming together

and having to start over from scratch.

- We come into it and we say I am open,

I am ready to throw my mind and heart and body into this.


- [Narrator] The result of this artistic exploration

is music that's constantly surprising

to both audiences and artists.

- I've never wanted to put myself

in a box as far as a musician.

I've never thought of myself as a classical musician

or a jazz musician, I just, I'm always

interested in what speaks.

- We're living in a great time of artistic exploration,

one where all you know can be sort of mixed together

in the pursuit of artistic beauty.

- [Narrator] And the pursuit of artistic beauty

is what drives Room Full of Teeth to find the extremes

of what is possible in that most organic

of instruments, the human voice.



(relaxing guitar music)

(mellow piano music)

- I feel that there's a spirit in trees

that's very deep.

I find the spirit just bouncing up

and down in the vein of the tree.

- George, he really wanted to be a tree in motion.

If you think a tree just grows,

well look what it has to deal with.

It's just sitting there getting pummeled by air,

wind, and drought, it's just tough.

It has to be disciplined to survive.

It's just the human condition too.

- [Narrator] George Nakashima's route to becoming

a legendary 20th century fine art furniture maker

was a circuitous one.

The Washington State native graduated with a master's degree

in architecture from MIT just as the Great Depression hit.

So, he headed off around the world.

Along the way, he spent time in France, India, and Japan.

On his return to the US, he set up a workshop in Seattle

and was just settling down with his wife

and infant daughter Mira, when his life was upended.

- Oh boy, all these treasures from long ago.

I have a toy box that my dad made for me.

Children's toys.


Uh huh, still there.

And I believe I had that in the camp.

- [Narrator] In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor,

the US Government began rounding up all US citizens

of Japanese ancestry and incarcerating them.

- We were all sent to camps on the Idaho desert.

It was a very difficult movement.

I was six weeks old.

In the camps, the buildings themselves were not ready.

So, when we got there a lot of the incarcerees

were actually the ones building the buildings.

And dad was teamed up with this Japanese carpenter

named Kentaro Hikogawa and they were given the task

of trying to make our barracks more livable.

The materials were what they could find on the properties.

Nowadays it's trendy to use found materials in your art,

but that's all we had was found materials back then.

And so I think that was the beginning of dad's capability

of using found materials.

- [Narrator] Post internment,

the family located to New Hope, Pennsylvania.

There they began to rebuild their lives

and while many Japanese felt it wiser

to willfully disavow their heritage,

not so for George Nakashima.

- There is a social norm in Japanese culture,

it's called gaman, and you just sort of put up with whatever

is given you no matter what and there's also an attitude

that it's called shikata ga nai, which you can't do anything

about it anyway, so let it go.

He said there were wounds,

but they healed over and left no scars.

Now I think that's a cop-out.


But, my father did kind of overcome it

and his way of overcoming it was through his work.

If you work with your hands and are able

to create something beautiful with your heart,

it eases the pain, it transforms the pain.

- [Narrator] Little by little, what started out

as a single workshop grew into a sprawling artistic refuge,

each building designed and built by George himself.

- A lot of the buildings were experimental

and my understanding is a lot of them people told him

that they wouldn't work.

That you can't do that

and he insisted they would and proved it.

I worked with George for a little over 20 years.

I was 17 when I first started.

By that time he wasn't the legend he's built up to now,

but you could kind of see it coming.

- [Man] Taking these worm tracks down huh?

- Okay, they don't go very deep, it should be easy.

(mellow piano music)

- Pieces themselves the way George conceived them,

they're obviously very substantial and very much at rest,

but there's a certain dynamism that is in the tree

and in the design, where they seem like they're

almost caught in motion and that too is a little confounding

because you think it's just a table,

but it looks like it's alive.

- [Narrator] Among George Nakashima's revolutionary designs,

the conoid chair, which like many of his buildings,

seemed to defy the laws of physics.

- When it came out in the 1960s there were people who said,

well you gotta take that off the market,

it's dangerous, everybody will sit on it and break it

and you'll be sued up and down and what do you think

you're doing, you're making a two-legged wooden chair.

And dad knew his structural engineering.

- [Narrator] But, it wasn't just about

good engineering for George Nakashima.

- Most woodworkers would consider wood just a dead material

to do their will, whatever their ego decided.

Whereas George, he was standing back

and letting the wood come forth with its story.

- Each piece of wood has a purpose

and whether it finds it or not is up to us.

- George was 65 when I started, everybody in the shop

had the more than a feeling, it was more of a certainty

that when George passed away, we were done.

I remember standing at the edge of George's grave,

I was standing next to Mira and she took me by the hand

and said can we do this, and I said yes we can.

And she went ahead and she did it.

- [Narrator] George Nakashima's legacy continues

in a handful of dedicated craftsmen who continue

to make furniture in his workshop.

Most especially in his daughter Mira.

- Dad always said the wood has a story to tell.

When I'm drawing a piece of wood I like to go

and stand in front of the piece of wood itself

because it speaks to me.

It's almost like a meditation on that board

which guides the pencil and the design itself.

- Everything on the property has George's

fingerprints all over it.

- He's in the wood that he bought,

he's in the buildings that he built,

he's in the shop where he worked for so many years.

(sawing and sanding)

Looking in his studio,

I sometimes I feel like he's still there.

So I often feel like he's watching over my shoulder,

I better do it right.

(mellow piano music)

- [Narrator] For more Articulate, find us on social media

or on our website

(mellow guitar music)

- [Sponsor] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.


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