Lost Soles Soars

Tapping into his own past, dancer Thaddeus Phillips makes magic.

A talented young tapper makes it all the way from Wyoming to New York's Carnegie Hall, but thanks to the malfeasance of a New York Timescritic, his performance is a disaster. ("More stumble than silk," sneers the reviewer the next day. "More slip than slide.")

From here, Thaddeus Phillips, the creator of Lost Soles, takes us on an odyssey. It begins by recapping the young man's training: his first tap classes at Dottie's School of Dance in Wyoming, his session with a Mr. Herman, who worked with Gene Kelly on Singing in the Rain, and finally, his wonderment at the demonstrations of famed tapper Jimmy Payne. These three were Phillips's own teachers (some of the inspiration for Lost Soles came from Payne's life), and he plays them all. Dottie, in high-heeled tap shoes and a wig, demonstrates kiddie-class moves, urges her charges to smile brightly and recalls an unhappy run-in with the eight-year-old Donald O'Connor. Mr. Herman uses squares of linoleum to demonstrate the concept of dancing at an angle and reminisces about variety acts with midgets. Payne gives grudging advice and dazzles with brilliant displays of tapping.

This brings us back to the New York debacle, which Phillips reprises, this time in slow motion. Mortified, the protagonist flees to Cuba. There he loses his passport. The year is 1963; he can't get back to the United States. Thirty-seven years pass, and the CIA sends an agent to look for him.

Thaddeus Phillips inhabits his own world in Lost Soles.
Thaddeus Phillips inhabits his own world in Lost Soles.

Phillips is an amazing tap dancer (I suspect if I were better-versed in the art form, I'd notice more specific details of tap's history and morphology in this work), but his talents don't end there. He gives each character a distinct and convincing persona, effortlessly varying his voice and self-presentation, as well as the way he uses his body in dance. You sense his affection for these people -- some of them actual characters from his life, some purely invented. Dottie's funny, but she's also sweet. Payne and Herman are fully realized characters, sketched with great economy. Later, Phillips plays a Cuban border guard and a CIA agent, and these people, too, come to life.

Lost Soles takes place on a low, horseshoe-shaped platform, linoleum squares covering one side, a small grid of metal rods set into the other. Phillips does everything himself -- switching lights on and off, activating video equipment, stringing rope for washing lines, using a model plane to signify his protagonist's flight to Cuba after the Carnegie Hall humiliation. There's tremendous specificity to his work. In his hands, props take on a life of their own, as when he seems to signal Mr. Herman's death by wrapping his photographs and tap shoes in a white cloth. There's magic, too: Lyrical video scenes of women walking down a road, life in Cuba, washing against a clear blue sky. In a fleabag Cuban hotel room haunted by a buzzing fly, a wooden case and handkerchief become a little bed straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

Lost Soles arises from almost pure experimentation; you can see Phillips's profound concentration throughout, the way he re-creates the experience moment by moment. But it's also the kind of work that welcomes the audience in rather than being willfully obscure. And it's often very funny. The CIA agent regards the audience with a baleful eye, made giant by a huge magnifying glass. The exasperated Cuban border guard uses a photograph of Fidel Castro as a map when giving the agent directions (think about that for a minute!).

Large chunks of Lost Soles are in Spanish, but you can pretty much follow what's going on, even if -- like me -- you don't speak the language.

Lost Soles is worth seeing for Thaddeus Phillips's tap virtuosity alone. But it will also remind you of theater's original storytelling mission and the myriad ways in which that mission can be evoked and fulfilled.

 
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