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ARTICLE: One’s a tap prodigy. The other’s a piano virtuoso. Together, they create magic on stage

San Diego Union-Tribune

Dancer-choreographer Caleb Teicher and composer-pianist Conrad Tao join forces for La Jolla Music Society’s ‘Counterpoint’

When Caleb Teicher tap dances to pianist Conrad Tao’s rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue,” it looks spontaneous, as if they are magically linked by the same innovative mindset.

The virtual performance, created in 2020 for the Library of Congress, offers an online excerpt of what audiences will witness when the duo performs the Gershwin classic in the La Jolla Music Society’s production of “Counterpoint,” the first show of the ProtoStar Innovative Series staged Friday at The Baker-Baum Concert Hall.

Tao plays “Rhapsody” with dynamic precision, rendering the tentative introduction with exquisite technique before the momentum builds into an expressive, march-like melody.

Teicher, dressed casually in overalls and a T-shirt, adds a layer of rhythm, with shuffles, slides and spins, a freestyle approach that gives way to an exuberant hailstorm of rapid footwork, punctuating the piano composition with percussive taps.

Tao and Teicher first collaborated in 2013 when a director at the Miami-based YoungArts (aka The National Foundation for the Advancement of Artists) had the idea to pair young artists for a gala performance.

Tao and Teicher were teenagers and former prodigies who had already spent many years in training.

“I said, ‘I think Conrad Tao is brilliant, so if you matched me with him, that would be great,’” Teicher recalled.

“Conrad composed a piece for cello, piano and tap dance, engineered through an iPad. But we didn’t start working more substantially together until 2017, when I approached him about composing and performing a piece for my dance company. Between that first time and working together more intensely in earnest, we were just friends. He came to my shows, I went to his shows. We were people who had started working relatively young and we had dreams of continuing to discover. We sort of aligned as people.”

Dancer-choreographer Caleb Teicher will perform with Conrad Tao in La Jolla Music Society's "Counterpoint."
(Courtesy of La Jolla Music Society / Photo by David Needleman)

A choreographer and dancer who prefers gender-neutral pronouns, Teicher performed with Dorrance Dance, the acclaimed tap company led by Michelle Dorrance, before launching the New York-based Caleb Teicher & Company in 2015.

Since then, musical collaborations have included beatboxer Chris Celiz, the National Symphony Orchestra, Ben Folds and Regina Spektor.

The “Counterpoint” productions with Tao allow for spontaneous creativity, a quality Teicher values.

“The concert we will bring to La Jolla is heavily improvised on my part,” said Teicher, who also is adept at the Lindy Hop, swing and folk dancing.

“Conrad has sheet music in front of him, but it’s up to him how accurately or faithfully he plays the work. There is not much Conrad can throw at me that I wouldn’t be prepared to dance through, and that’s sort of fun. I think that galvanizes Conrad to change it up, and when we try it on stage, there’s a palpable energy.”

Teicher is the recipient of a New York City Center Choreographic Fellowship, multiple grants and two Bessie Awards (New York Dance and Performance Awards), one for individual performance and one for “More Forever,” a musical collaboration with Tao that incorporates the sounds of piano, electronics and “sandbox,” or the sound from dancer’s feet against a stage dusted with a thin layer of sand.

The original evening-length work was composed for seven dancers and premiered at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in 2019.

Conrad Tao, an award-winning composer and pianist
Conrad Tao, an award-winning composer and pianist, is one half of the duo performing in La Jolla Music Society’s “Counterpoint.”
(Courtesy photo)

That same year, Tao released his third Warner Classics album, “American Rage,” and he has been commissioned to write works for many orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Hong Kong Philharmonic and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

The “Counterpoint” concert includes classical music by Bach, Brahms, Ravel and Mozart, along with Art Tatum’s “Cherokee” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

The duo also will perform a short segment from “More Forever.” The song’s textured score was initially conceived as being representative of what Tao described as a “picture of lightness and lyricism,” a sound one does not typically hear in percussive tap dancing.

It explains Teicher’s preference for the tone of “the old soft shoe,” but with piano accompaniment (metal tap shoes are worn for volume).

The award-winning “More Forever” continues to evolve in ways that keep Teicher and Tao engaged and in the moment.

“We wrote the piece across three residencies in 2018, and it kept growing and changing from there,” Tao explained. “Eventually it became about time, about the passage of time and the experience of getting through time.”

Improvisational dance rhythms and new renderings of classics bring a fresh perspective to Tao and Teicher’s live performance.

“That’s what I like about improvisation,” Tao said.

“It demands such a high level of presence and such a close attentiveness to one another. To me, it doesn’t feel removed from the classical tradition. You are given a score as a musician and you are interpreting a score every time and every night. Of course, that interpretation is formed by the work you have done ahead of time, by practicing and thinking and preparation. While all of that is true, the interpretation is actually taking flight anew for every single show.”

La Jolla Music Society presents “Counterpoint,” with pianist Conrad Tao and dancer Caleb Teicher

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: The Baker-Baum Concert Hall at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: $41-$85 (limited availability)

Phone: (858) 459-3728

Online: ljms.org

Luttrell is a freelance writer.