Last night DanceHouse's 2017/18 season concluded with a triple bill by Dorrance Dance, the award-winning tap company overseen by the choreographer and artistic director Michelle Dorrance. I was a bit dubious about sitting through 75 minutes of continuous tap, my usual threshold for the form being a few minutes of thematically juxtapositional razzle-dazzle within an otherwise rigorously contemporary work (as in DanceHouse's previous presentation of Betroffenheit), or else the paced out show-stopping routines of classic musical theatre (e.g. 42nd Street). But it seems that Dorrance's MacArthur Genius Grant is well-earned. Her aesthetic is one that marries deep respect for tap's history and traditions with a desire to push the form technically and conceptually.
This means, among other things, challenging the notion that it is only the soles of a tap shoe that can produce sound. In the opening number on last night's program, Jungle Blues, I was absolutely floored (the metaphor seems appropriate) when one of the company dancers first dragged the tops of their shoes along the parquet floor, producing a noise like a needle scraping across a vinyl record, and sending a corresponding shiver of delight down my spine. In this ensemble piece, set to a classic song by Jelly Roll Morton, the dancers alternate between unison choreography and character-based solo improvisations, with Dorrance herself playing up a gangly white-girl persona, all ungraceful angles and splayed knees. But my eyes were mostly on everyone's feet, watching how long someone's remained on demi-point (and sometimes full-on point), how often another's buckled over onto their sides, and so on.
If classic tap is all about the syncopated relationship between rhythm and gravity, such that we are made to marvel at how a person doing a freewheeling, double wing step, with both arms likewise windmilling the air, is able to remain upright, Dorrance is not afraid to push those limits--literally floorward. Her tap choreography is most interesting when it explores the off-axis and when, in doing so, it traces a genealogy between tap and a more contemporary form like break-dancing. This came to the fore especially in the concluding piece on the program, Myelination, which is an anatomical term that refers to the maturation and sheathing of nerve cells, allowing nerve impulses to travel more quickly. One can see how this applies to the hyper-kineticism of tap, but in this 30 minute piece with live music Dorrance also demonstrates its relevance to B-boying. Two of her dancers alternate between tap shoes and high tops, and some of the most innovative choreography relates to a sequence of intertwined prone legwork between this pair.
In between these pieces, Dorrance programmed a short but deeply affecting trio, Three to One, featuring herself and dancers Byron Tittle and Matthew "Megawatt" West. It begins with the three dancers, dressed in matching black cloth garments, standing side by side in a rectangle of downstage white light. Dorrance, wearing tap shoes, is positioned between the two men, who are both barefoot. As Dorrance begins to shuffle and click her feet together, almost like Dorothy seeking to return to Kansas from Oz, the men also start to move, sometimes falling into step with Dorrance, at other times breaking into quick, darting contraction and release movements of the hips and torsos and legs that are reminiscent of traditional African dance. Indeed, it is hard--especially once the two men exit the stage and Dorrance continues with a virtuosic solo that sees her alternate between retreating into the darkness of upstage and reemerging into the downstage light--not to read this work as an express comment on the specific African-American lineage of tap, as well as of so much American social dance more generally (from jive to hip hop).
This is hardly surprising coming from a choreographer as intelligent as Dorrance, who in addition to her years of tap training also designed her own undergraduate curriculum at NYU's Gallatin School of Individualized Study. According to Wikipedia, her courses focused on concepts of race in America in relation to democratic culture. If you're going to devote your life to reclaiming and celebrating tap as a form, this makes total sense.