A Little Old, A Little New | American Dance Festival | Bryan Amphitheater, North Carolina Museum of Art |

Sept. 11, 7:30 p.m. 

Longtime local dancegoers have likely seen Luke Hickey before. On the Carolina Theatre stage in 2004, he was the bright, blond-haired third grader dwarfed by the middle and high schoolers but still holding his own in tap dance sensei Gene Medler’s North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble (NCYTE). Over the 10 years he danced with the group while growing up in Chapel Hill, producers and dance professionals took note of the budding young prodigy.

“It really changed my life,” Hickey says.

A decade with Medler put him “in the driver’s seat of my own career, my own destiny,” Hickey says. By the time he left Chapel Hill in 2014, his trajectory was clear: follow the path Michelle Dorrance, another tap titan from Medler’s group, took several years earlier, to New York. By then, Dorrance’s own company was receiving accolades; she’d receive a MacArthur Foundation award the following year. After she invited Hickey to join her company, stage, film work, and showcase showings of his own dances followed at the Joyce, the home church venue for modern dance in Manhattan.

Then his breakout evening-length show, A Little Old, A Little New, premiered in 2018 at the famed Gotham jazz venue Birdland. The work for three tap dancers and jazz trio—which local audiences will see next weekend during the American Dance Festival’s fall season at the NC Museum of Art—was an unabashed love letter to the dance form’s deep roots in jazz clubs. An almost reverent vibe resonates for the music and musicians in moments throughout the production.

When noted acoustic bassist Mark Lewandowski takes a pensive mid-show solo, for example, dancers Tommy Wasiuta and fellow NCYTE alum Elizabeth Burke simply sit on the bandstand at the musicians’ feet, gazing up with undisguised admiration.

Elsewhere, interlaced among tasty funk variants on standards like “Fly Me to the Moon,” leavened with eclectic, soulful takes on tunes from Tamia and Kanye West, are what Hickey calls “conversations”—danced dialogues between himself and Lewandowski, Wasiuta and pianist Liya Grigoryan, and Burke and drummer Charles “Chuck” Goold, which progress from initially simple call-and-responses to increasingly intricate variations on their mutually developed themes.

The dancers find a number of gears among the playlist, contrasting the sinuous, slow, skidding slides of the Ahmad Jamal opener, “Stolen Moments,” with syncopated off-beat polyrhythms in “It’s Your Thing.”

Both take a back seat, though, to the laser-like focus and intensity in the beyond-rapid-fire fusillades of 64th notes that Burke trades with Goold when they square off, and Hickey and Wasiuta egg each other on in what at times seems a risky game of Can You Top This? It’s precision work on a choreographic tightrope, with the potential for disaster always, immediately, at hand, a single off-time off-step away.

“Ironically, it’s quite meditative,” Hickey says. “It would seem like you’re in the driver’s seat of a Formula 1 car, right? But for me, everything actually slows down and opens up. It’s where I feel most connected to my art form and my ancestors.”

Hickey reflects on the sophistication and attentiveness among his musicians, which are put to the test each night when everyone’s trading irregular cadences at full warp speed. “It’s almost like there are just two spotlights, and that’s the whole world. For the audience to see that intimacy and just feel the deep musicality and deep connection in that exchange is quite exciting.”

So, what’s with the scuffed-up shoes?

The rest of the ensemble’s dress is top-drawer casual evening wear, but the white finish on their three identical pairs of Capezio K360 Oxfords reveals every ding, hard landing, and scar. They’re more than just a dancer’s bona fides, proof of what Hickey calls “the physicality of practice” and the hundreds of studio hours required to make each moment stick.

If you don’t break the shoes in, they’ll murder you during a show.

“We actually need to ‘love’ them for a couple of months before they feel right for performance,” Hickey says. He notes that he’s currently “in the blister stage—the bloody socks and all” of a new pair he’s had for two weeks. “But then you get into that perfect sweet spot where it’s not falling apart. The leather’s in agreement with you, your feet, the way you want to move, and the sound you want to make,” Hickey sighs.

New aluminum taps have to be finessed as well since they can sound “too crispy or too sterile.” Dancers have to file the edges down “so you’re not slipping, but have the great resonance we’re looking for,” Hickey says.

By showtime, the foot-worn percussion instrument conveys “our vulnerability, an intimate moment into our craft. It shows the humanity in what we try to do.”

“It’s just real,” Hickey smiles. “It’s how it is.”

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