Caleb Teicher’s and Conrad Tao’s ‘More Forever’: exuberant joy with a melancholy undertow that speaks to the fragility of human existence

Caleb Teicher’s and Conrad Tao’s ‘More Forever’: exuberant joy with a melancholy undertow that speaks to the fragility of human existence
It’s seldom a performer asks an audience not to applaud, but that’s precisely what multi award-winning American dance artist Caleb Teicher did on Wednesday night before a small, invitation-only gathering at Harbourfront Centre’s Fleck Dance Theatre.

Teicher (who uses the pronouns they, their, them) has a rapidly expanding reputation as one of the most innovative tap dancers around; except that to label Teicher so specifically is to diminish the scope of their artistry. Even so, Teicher is an ace at percussive dance, renowned for its applause-evoking “wow” factor, and there are moments in “More Forever,” Teicher’s hour-long 2019 collaboration with American composer and pianist Conrad Tao, that sizzle and spark enough to generate plenty of “wows.”

But Wednesday night’s performance was a five-camera livestreamed event, directed by Oscar-nominated producer and director Barbara Willis Sweete as part of Toronto’s current Fall for Dance North. As Teicher, 28, explained, they did not want the emotional response of at-home viewers to be influenced by the live audience’s reactions.

It was a wise request. “More Forever” is a complex work of dance theatre. While buoyed by moments of exuberant joy, it is also intimately personal and many layered. Its reflective, occasionally almost melancholy undertow speaks to the fragility of human existence. Like rhythm itself — and rhythm is at the core of “More Forever” — it’s all about carving up time, which for humans is finite.

As Teicher poignantly sings toward the end of the work, “I thought I would have more time.” Although it has a quasi-narrative thread, it is very much open to individual interpretation.

As composer-choreographer collaborations go, it does not get more entwined than this. Anyone who has seen the abundantly multi-talented Tao in concert pianist mode, whether live or onscreen — he’s played at Roy Thomson and Koerner halls as well as Ottawa’s National Arts Centre — will have observed how his whole body becomes involved in the act of playing. Tao’s acoustic-electronic Bessie Award-winning score for “More Forever” is not an atmospheric wash or mere springboard for the dance; it is part of a physical and sonic conversation between Teicher’s six-member company, dancing on a sand-strewn floor, and the sometimes discordant chords, intricate rhythms and delicate suggestions of melody coming from Tao’s Steinway grand.

“Caleb and I both wanted this to be a very active exchange,” said Tao, 27, during a rehearsal break. “It feels completely co-written.”

“He is very much one of us,” said Teicher. “This piece can only be played by Conrad.”

In a particularly affecting moment, Tao enters the dancers’ space carrying a tiny toy piano that he solemnly proceeds to play cross-legged. The clock winding back to childhood? Music at its simplest? A nod to life’s ultimate absurdity? You decide.

Incongruously, the Tao-Teicher connection began with Willow Smith’s 2010 pop hit “Whip My Hair.” As teenagers, Tao and Teicher were in Miami as 2011 finalists in the National Foundation for the Advancement of Artists’ multidisciplinary YoungArts competition. Tao, whimsically and overnight, orchestrated an arrangement of Smith’s 2010 pop hit for an ensemble of classical musicians. It was way out there crazy stuff and Teicher, who not so much enjoys pushing the envelope as ripping it open, decided there and then they wanted to work with Tao.

By 2015, Teicher had become a founding member of Michelle Dorrance’s namesake company. They were part of Dorrance Dance when the troupe thrilled Toronto audiences at that year’s inaugural Fall for Dance North. It was also the year Teicher founded their own company to explore a broader range of possibilities in jazz, tap and other traditional forms.

Tao, a musical prodigy by any standard, had decided he did not want to become, as he puts it, a dual instrument “novelty act” and had put down his violin to devote himself to the piano. It continues to carry him to concert stages around the world, playing a wide-ranging traditional repertoire as well as his own compositions.

Tao’s and Teicher’s ascendant but divergent career paths made the shared desire to collaborate difficult to achieve but, both New Yorkers, they stayed in touch.

“We started hanging out,” said Teicher. “When it was possible we’d invite each other to each other’s show.”

Leading up to “More Forever,” a Guggenheim “Works & Process” commission, the two had managed to collaborate on smaller projects, but this was Tao’s first composition for dance and Teicher’s first evening-length choreography.

Now that pandemic public health restrictions are easing, “More Forever” is booked through next May for live performances across the United States. Apart from it being an ensemble work, touring and setting up the sandbox are logistically challenging.

“You can’t fly around with a sack of sand,” joked Teicher. “We source it locally at each venue. It’s basically playground sand.”

The purpose of the sand, apart from its obvious metaphorical significance, is to help create new percussive possibilities and a more equal sound balance between music and movement. For that reason the dancers — who explore in abstracted form a historic catalogue of American jazz, tap and swing dance, do not wear metal-tipped shoes.

“More Forever” draws to its close in silence. First Teicher, then Tao walk slowly off in opposite directions.

Blackout. Pause. The “it’s a wrap” signal was given. Lights up and the entire company returned to take their bows; finally, very loud applause.

“More Forever” can be viewed online until Oct. 26 by single-ticket access and until Nov. 5 with a livestream pass. See for information.
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