Let that combination swirl in your head for a bit. It’s an unexpected combination, to be sure, but that’s Max Pollak for you and he’ll bring his unique flair and skills as a dancer to the Cowan Center stage next week as he performs alongside the East Texas Symphony Orchestra.
Pollak has spent his career traveling the globe as an innovator in the realm of tap dance and body rhythm. He is perhaps best known as the creator of RumbaTap, a unique fusion of Afro-Cuban music and dance, American jazz, body percussion and tap dance.
It’s been quite the journey for Pollak, though, as he’s won awards and made his name in the international dance community. Growing up in Vienna, Austria, there was only classical ballet for a youth hungry to learn to dance. This was particularly challenging for Pollak once he was bitten by the tap bug after watching Fred Astaire finesse his way across the screen of the family television set.
Even at the age of 5, Pollak knew immediately he wanted to follow in Astaire’s footsteps (literally and figuratively), but with no tap instructors to be found in Vienna, he was unable to regularly take lessons until he was 11. Not that that stopped him from trying to learn on his own.
“I however did some self-teaching. My parents bought me some shoes in a dancewear store. I also caught a little bit of an instructional TV show that was on just for a few months,” Pollak said. “So I would watch regularly whatever came on, whether it was Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, and I would end up imitating whatever I saw on TV.”
“There was this brief, 20 minute instructional TV show with an American actor. He would get on TV at like 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. and show a couple of steps and I would be glued to the television and picked up everything he was teaching. So that was my instruction and I just started spinning it in any direction I would, as a 6 year old will.”
Just as crucial as tap lessons, though, was Pollak’s introduction to jazz as a drummer. This would help lay the foundations for his creation of RumbaTap and eventually lead him to discovering Afro-Cuban music, further expanding his artistic horizons and leading him further from his “roots.”
“They got me involved in some very interesting, very progressive classical music. They are very experimental. They are all involved in a group that presents classical music but with a very innovative approach. I got really into it. Then realizing all of a sudden I’m (tap) dancing to Schubert and to Mozart and to Bach, coming full circle from where I left. Then I got involved with symphony orchestras and chamber orchestras. It was taking me back to my cultural roots,” Pollak said.
Created by Paul Draper during the era of Vaudeville, the art of tap dancing to classical music isn’t new, Pollak said, but it’s never quite caught on with either musicians or dancers. There simply aren’t that many dancers willing to memorize so much music and even fewer who can read music to begin with, as a tap solo is written by the composer in the way any other instrument solo would be.
At the concert, Pollak will perform one of the few tap solo pieces in existence, one written by Morton Gould for tap dancer Danny Daniels.
“It is still to this day pretty much the only piece available in repertoire that features a tap dancer as a soloist. There are some other pieces, but they are very, very hard to come by and they are very, very few. So the Morton Gould tap dance concerto is really pretty much at this point the only piece in the field,” Pollak said.
Such a rarity of tap solo compositions has inspired Pollak to commission a plethora of composers from around the world write pieces specifically for him. The composers hail from places such as Turkey, Cuba, Colombia and Switzerland.
“My contribution in the field is that I am one of the few people performing the Morton Gould, which is not easy because you have to memorize 25 minutes of music, because it’s not all improvised. It’s all written out and has been predetermined by the composer. I can select which movements I do, but the rhythm has to be what Morton Gould put forth,” Pollak said. “But then besides that, I am also commissioning and asking classical composers to write music for me specifically for classical ensemble and tap and body percussion. I have four pieces now that have been written specifically for me and different kinds of classical ensembles.”
Pollak will perform along with the East Texas Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 12 at the University of Texas at Tyler’s Cowan Center. Joining him will be guest conductor Jean-Francois Rivest. For ticket information, visit www.etso.org.