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.
- [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.
- [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,
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)
- [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.
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.
- [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.
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 articulateshow.org.
(mellow guitar music)
- [Sponsor] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible
with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.