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Q & A: Savion Glover

Savion Glover isn’t about to let his rehearsal get off on the wrong foot.

Recently departed from his Tony-nominated turn as choreographer of Broadway’s Shuffle Along …, the tap dance genius is in NJPAC’s black-box theater, facing a somewhat more challenging cast: Forty-five kids ranging in age from 6 to 18, mostly from his home city of Newark.

They’re the lucky survivors of two days of auditions and a day of callbacks to perform in Savion Glover’s BRiNG TiME BaCK @NJPAC, a salute to jazz created for NJPAC’s Arts Education Department by Glover, who is the Arts Center’s Dance Advisor. Nicknamed “The Club” by the company, this original song-and-dance piece will be performed at 6 p.m. on Sunday, September 18 in the 500-seat Victoria Theater.

Firmly establishing the tone for what will amount to more than a month of rehearsal, the Tony-winning choreographer and star of Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk is hearing way too much of the former.

Loud talking and boisterous behavior earn an invitation to leave the room, he says. Listen and you’ll learn. Respect others. Boom.

“I ain’t babysitting,” he semi-jokes to a bystander.

Glover, his thick dreadlocks pulled into a pony-bun, prowls the space with just tennis socks protecting his gazillion-dollar feet and a loose T-shirt and baggy shorts draping his lanky frame. As he talks his way through a vignette, he pauses to whisper a bit of character motivation to a young actor, consult with script writer Vangela Crowe, or snap along with pianist Victor Burks.

Paper cups and pencils passed out to the cast become table votives and silverware for “Club Denim.” Gentle but firm in approach, Glover encourages applause in the studio to keep the vibe upbeat and positive. He frequently punctuates his directions with a conclusive “boom,” street-speak for n’est-ce pas.

It was during auditions for about 75 youngsters, Glover recalls, that he began to think about changing the show from a straight revue into a nightlife fantasia built around the stories of the club’s patrons. Among the musicians of an onstage house band are students of NJPAC’s Wells Fargo Jazz for Teens program.

“I got myself into the idea of having old music steer the energy of the club,” says the artist, who has chosen compositions by the greats, like Duke Ellington and George Gershwin. “It’s an old-school club with a new-school environment. We’re using these young voices to remind one generation of how a jazz club once was, and at the same time inform a new generation of what that club could have been.”

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The score spans classic standards, such as “Summertime” and “Stormy Weather,” to spirituals (“Jesus on the Mainline”), to more contemporary hits, including “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

One of the soloists, 16-year-old Clifford James (“CJ”) Holmes of Orange, has participated in arts education programs at NJPAC for about four years. A basketball standout at Newark Prep Charter School, CJ plays a club-goer who hungers for the spotlight.

“The coolest thing I’ve learned from Savion is to work hard with the biggest energy possible,” says the singer and instrumentalist. “He pushes you to be the best you can be, off and on stage, to go harder and think deeper about your character and your craft.”

Glover makes no secret of the fact that many of the pioneers of tap pushed him forward by mentoring or inspiring him from the age of 7: names like Gregory Hines, “Buster” Brown and Dianne Walker. He pays tribute to their talents in an original presentation, Savion Glover’s Chronology of a HooFer, on Saturday, October 8 at NJPAC.

Whether he’s introducing children and teens to live performance or looking back on his own apprenticeships and career, Glover believes in the life-changing potential of the arts.

 “There’s love in the music,” he says.