Minimalism and tap dancing aren’t things you’d normally think of as going together. Tap shows tend to be flashy affairs, with bright lights, shimmering costumes and an upbeat energy. Choreographer Kaleena Miller, therefore, goes against the grain with her first evening-length dance work, “Shift.” It reduces tap to its skeleton — rhythm takes center stage.
Tap is a hybrid of movement and percussion. Like other forms of dance, it essentially uses the body as an instrument, but in tap the sound is as important as the visuals, if not more so. Each of the dancers in her troupe, Kaleena Miller Dance, acts as a separate component of the sound score, which, if this were a hierarchy, takes precedence over what the audience sees.
There are simultaneous moments, moments of solo virtuosity and a couple of riveting duets, but the show finds its groove when it embraces its layered beats, with different dancers contributing their cadence to the whole.
Performing on a starkly lit stage — Mark Ruark did the austere lighting design — the dancers wear short-sleeved button-up white shirts, and white shorts. Footwear provides the only variety in their costumes — gold tap shoes, reddish-brown tap shoes, two-toned shoes and black patent leather shoes with black socks.
The movements, too, are uniform. Miller explores structure and pattern as she places the dancers in different formations that break and come together, eventually shooting off lines that move across the stage, entering and exiting from the four corners of the Southern Theater.
“Shift” is a risky move for Miller. Without a narrative arc, showy design or any use of emotional content to draw the audience in, she lets the sound score — created in collaboration with the dancers and a guest musician — stand by itself. Different musicians join the cast every night, so each show is a unique experience.
Opening night on Thursday featured J.T. Bates, whose drumming was unobtrusive, as if he were being careful not to outshine the main score created by the tappers. (Friday featured Leah Ottman of LOTT and Fog, while Alexei Casselle of hip-hop group Kill the Vultures will perform Saturday and Bad Plus bassist Reid Anderson on Sunday.)
Miller’s risk inspires admiration, even if her show doesn’t quite knock it out of the park. Clocking in at under an hour, it feels a bit unfinished, as if it needed a bit more of a crescendo at the end, or perhaps a couple of other pieces to round out the evening.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis dance critic and arts writer.