“Bzzz” transforms the artistic forms of solo virtuosity into a group affair

Acclaimed tap dancer Caleb Teicher and world champion beatboxer Chris Celise may seem like they belong to very different tribes. But when they met a few years ago while separately attending a conference in Miami, they started talking about the commonality between their art forms.

“They’re both body music,” Teicher said recently. “And they use parts of the body”—legs, mouths—“that you might think of as limited or niche. It could be argued that tap dancing has tonal limitations, and you could say the same about beatboxing. But there is no limit to how they excite our imagination.

They realized that both styles grew out of black American traditions: jazz and hip-hop. “And so they share ideas about call and response, virtuosity, competition, humor,” Teicher said. “All these things are in the same cauldron.”

What could happen, they wondered, if they combined their skills?

The result of just that was “Bzzz,” a raucous, 15-minute piece created for Fall for Dance at New York City Center in 2018. The piece was well received by audiences and critics alike, and for the following year, the festival requested to make it twice as long. Other presenters then suggested expanding it into a stand-alone program, but Teicher and Celiz opposed it.

Then, one day in the shower, Teicher had an epiphany that led to the 70-minute version of “Bzzz,” which debuted at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday.

To explain that epiphany requires a bit of a spoiler. In all its versions, “Bzzz” opens with a sweet encounter between Celiz and a team of tap dancers. “It’s like a science fiction first date or a new kid’s first day at school,” Teicher said. Communicating through rhythm, cast members discover what they can do collectively. The shower idea how to expand this: What if another beatboxer comes along?

This addition by beatboxer Gene Shinozaki expands on work that, on one level, is about expansion by inclusion. Teicher pointed to an early section during which Celiz and the dancers engage in a musical form called hocketing—each person takes a small piece of a rhythmic phrase and plays it in a line like a relay. Here, at each repetition, a new person joins and presses himself on a small wooden board.

“And the attitude is, ‘Sure, we’ve got room for one more,'” Teicher said. “The tap dancers and the beatboxers want to welcome people.”

Seliz emphasized this attitude as a choice and a type of maturation. “The biggest bar for beatboxing is competition,” he said. “I started creating 90-second beatboxing routines to beat someone else. But as you grow, you realize that you can do more together.

Although beatboxers like Celiz and Shinozaki can offer many layers of sound individually, it takes two of them to sing in harmony. Likewise, two beatboxers and six tap dancers can do things that one beatboxer and six tap dancers can’t.

“We’re always trying to explore more sonically,” Selise said. “And because we love what we do, we want to connect it to as many people as possible.”

Hence the tone of “Bzzz”: bright, broad and goofy. Naomi Funaki, the assistant choreographer, compared watching the show to reading comic books. Some parts, including a simulated tennis match, look like comedy skits with sound effects provided by beatboxers. Other vaudeville touches amid EDM beats and hums and more recent pop culture references: a curtain that rises to knee level, the old shave-and-cut rhythm returning again and again.

Both tap and beatbox aim to amaze – your feet and mouth can that? — and everything on “Bzzz” tends to ramp up, speed up, get crazier, sometimes rising to the skipping energy of a mosh pit. But the way remains attractive; call and response sections include the audience.

“With beatboxing, there’s a lot of ‘Look at this great technique!'” Selise said. “And that’s great, but you can also be like, ‘Hey, come be with us.'”

Shinozaki said the show reminds him of how he got into the beatboxing community. “One of the first beatboxers I met was Chris, who’s been doing it a lot longer than me,” he said. “And I’d see him at competitions and he’d invite me over to his house and introduce me to other beatboxers.” Now the two often perform together as the duo Spiderhorse, as well as with a collective called Beatbox House.

One of the differences between this version of “Bzzz” and the previous ones, besides the length, is that its choreographer Teicher does not perform. “I think I do a better job doing the piece without being in it,” Teicher said. “It also means another job for another tap dancer.”

Such self-abnegation is in tune with the production. Tap dance and beatboxing tend to celebrate solo virtuosity, “and there are some amazing solos in this show,” Teicher said. “But that’s not the point. The question is how we all come together. It’s something we all feel really passionate about sharing.”

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