The joy of tap, like falling in love

Dorrance Dance and "The Blues Project" rap out the rhythms of "the most cutting-edge dance form in America" to close White Bird's season


I skipped the bus and walked home after watching The Blues Project at the Schnitzer last Wednesday night.

You know that feeling, a little bit like falling in love, that possesses you after an extraordinary performance and leaves all your senses bright and fresh and wide awake? That’s what I felt after seeing tap virtuoso Michelle Dorrance and her company of six dancers mix it up with Toshi Reagon’s aptly named, genre-expanding blues band BIGLovely in White Bird’s season closer. In spades. The feeling lingered. I needed to be out in the city, to hear the echoes of tap dance in its rhythms: the sound of a woman’s high heels tapping against the sidewalk, the electric shimmy of the streetcar, a man singing to himself while drumming out a steady beat, beat, beat against a bench in the Park Blocks. I even tried out a few steps of my own, clumsily imitating what I had just seen on stage.

Photo: Christopher Duggan

Photo: Christopher Duggan

Mostly, though, I was thinking about how we are living in a golden age of tap dance. The art form has managed to keep a firm hold on its traditions while innovating and expanding the definitions of what constitutes that tradition. A generation of gifted dancers and choreographers – including, in addition to the 35-year-old Dorrance, Savion Glover (the astonishing king of contemporary tap), Jason Samuels-Smith, Roxane Butterfly, and Dorrance’s co-choreographers on this show, Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards – all have the history of tap deep inside their bodies, but they are not content to rest in the past: they’re revolutionaries who refuse to turn away from their roots.

The first thing that grabs you about The Blues Project is the music. Toshi Reagon’s voice is the heart of it. The songs she’s composed for Dorrance take in a range of styles—a kind of tour of the blues, from the work song that opens the show to folk and rock, but always with the blues as the ground for each number. She can caress a phrase or shout to heaven. But it’s all effortless, without any strain (you can sense the huge reserve of power in her voice even when she’s singing in a whisper); and she has that uncanny gift for imbuing the words she sings with emotion.

Reagon and the four members of BIGLovely are seated on a platform behind the dancers, but really there’s no separation between dancer and musician here. Tap is of course a percussive dance form, and the members of Dorrance Dance are in effect a part of the band. The band doesn’t provide accompaniment for the dancers; rather, the two groups are in conversation and take turns at controlling the beat and rhythm. When the band is in charge, the dancers will frequently move between the beat rather than on it. The sounds they produce with their taps are as varied and complex as any of the music made by the band.

At one point Juliette Jones, the band’s violinist, jumps down and jams with the dancers in a bluegrass- and zydeco-inflected number that truly is an exchange of equals. The sequence, danced by the entire ensemble, has a loose, open-air feel that’s made even stronger by the fact that two of the dancers perform barefooted. The onstage microphones actually pick up the distinctive slap of their feet as they jog through a breezy swing-step. Another key moment comes later, when drummer Allison Miller asserts herself with a solo that leaves Gene Krupa in the dust (honestly) and amps up the rhythms to a speed and complexity that propel the dancers to even greater feats of footwork. The whole show rockets by at such a pace that at 60 minutes it feels short.

Dorrance and her collaborators have structured the show so that the dance sequences alternate between choreographed numbers (generally for the entire ensemble) and improvised numbers for the soloists (Dorrance, Grant, and Sumbry-Edwards). The two form a seamless whole — this isn’t a variety show or a series of acts, but a unified evening of dances. Throughout the show you see an attention to the torso and the arms — both are used expressively — so that the dancing is always about more than the feet. Each member of the ensemble has an individual way of moving (this is a company of individuals), but they all are tight and right-on in the unison sections. Dorrance has built the big numbers with craft and care for spacing and patterns. She uses the entire stage space. I especially loved the extended overlapping arms exhibited by two couples, paused in a rare moment of stillness, that looked for all the world like something out of Balanchine. For the second half of the show I moved to the back of the auditorium just so that I could more easily take in these shapes.

All of the dancing showed a level of virtuosity that was awe-inspiring and had the audience screaming and talking back to the dancers (“You go, girl!”), with one large very vocal contingent letting out regular bursts of ululations. At times the dancers’ feet are hitting the floor with such speed and force that they are a blur of motion; and then a sudden change in rhythm brings a relaxation, and each tap is discernable, sometimes speaking softly, other times beating out fluid but staccato bursts of sound.

The emotional complexity of the solos is such that they function as soliloquies, eloquent, dense, articulate as any human speech. As mentioned, they are improvised, and as a further challenge to the dancers the band doesn’t reveal what songs it will be playing for the soloists before the show.

Dorrance is the first to take a turn. She’s all angles, sharp-elbowed with a beautifully tough, intense stage presence and a Mona Lisa smile. She hits the floor harder than anyone else. There’s a lovely, slightly eccentric quality to her dancing. She is very fond of stopping on her heel, and she risks more tricky balances, it seems, than any dancer since Suzanne Farrell. The sheer variety of sounds she produces in a phrase is amazing — a soft sandpapery shuffle will then turn to hard clicks (those heel-stops again) and then into a flood of drum-like stomps. And again, each step and phrase has an emotional meaning. Dorrance moves from anger to joy to bawdy sexiness and more. Everything she does is supersized.

Grant is utterly different. He’s a big, muscular guy, tough-looking, but he taps with a cat’s lightness and with a smile that is all sweetness. He’s at his best when he’s lyrical, but you sense the reserve of strength in all he does. Just when you think he’s all smoothness and soft, slightly blurred rhythms, he lets that power off its leash, and he has somehow traveled across the stage in a jet-speed series of hard taps.

Sumbry-Edwards’ solo began in response to a flamenco-inspired guitar solo by Reagon. It covered more space and had the widest emotional range of all the dances. In part this had to do with where Reagon took the music. As the dance reached its climax she sang, almost chanted, the sad refrain “a dream deferred,” coupling it with references to the riots in Baltimore. I don’t know how, but Sumbry-Edwards somehow matched her, finding movement and tap rhythms that amplified and elaborated the message of protest in Reagon’s music. The show closed with a finale that had much of the audience standing and dancing. Gorgeous as it was, I couldn’t shake that conversation in percussion and song between Sumbry-Edwards and Reagon.

The dance historian Constance Valis Hill claims that tap dance is the most cutting-edge dance form currently to be seen in the United States. What makes tap stand out for Hill is the intense innovation going on in the form, coupled with an attention to emotional and political content. It’s the sort of notion that can’t really be proven or disproven, but The Blues Project left me feeling that Hill just might be right. Let’s hope White Bird invites the company back and soon.

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