Dorrance Dance Project
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, CA
March 16, 2017
by Rita Felciano
copyright © Rita Felciano 2017
What to do when a star has to cancel an opening night performance because of injury? Cancel your ticket and return when the headliner will be back? Or miss the show completely because of conflicting commitments? That was my conundrum when Michelle Dorrance had to forego the first of three local performances of the “Blues Project.” I finally figured that if the project was good, it needed to stand on its own two feet even without its major attraction. Best decision I have made in a long time. The “Blues Project,” an hour-long tap extravaganza eatures an art, dancers and musicians of superior quality and a love for what they are doing that is infectious. “Blues” was tightly structured, formally inventive and generous in the way ensemble sections offered opportunities for individual artists to step into the limelight. It’s too early to think of the ten best of the year but “Blues Project” will rank high.
Dorrance Dance Project in "Blues Project." Photo by Christopher Duggan
Co-presented by San Francisco Performances and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, "Blues" was created by Dorrance, fellow tappers Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and vocalist/composer Toshi Reagon. So what about the idea that many cooks spoil the stew? Not in this case. The hour-long show rolled off its delights smoothly, with a generous spirit and what felt like limitless imagination. Tap, so long considered a solo genre, here became a communal expression in which individuality and a shared purpose held each other up. It also showcased tap's extraordinarily intricate vocabulary with pearly beats like rain on a roof and those wonderful slides that for a moment turned the stage into an ice-skating ring. In a moment of particularly levity, the dancers squeezed into a single spotlight, each one trying to outmaneuver a colleague for the front position.
Maybe most fascinating was "Blues'" vibrant sense of space where the eight dancers would form and reform into small units, sometimes performing in unison but also shaping themselves into overlapping, contrapuntal or soloistic patterns. These were the moments when I simply closed my eyes and listened to this unique symphony of feet. The ease with which the dancers kept themselves and each other going was balletic in the sense that you don't show the effort that goes into the work.
The project also paid tribute to the historic streams that have fed Tap over the years. It evoked generations of American music making. Early on you could feel yourself watching an Appalachian country dance(with Juliette Jones on violin); then you entered a jitterbug party, and of course, we couldn't do with some rocking rock 'n' roll. Most unexpected, perhaps, was some couple dancing which challenged intersecting knees and recalled Fred Astaire and his partners. I wish Karida Griffith's solo of African-derived traditions had been given more prominence. What should probably have been three trios that melded into each other, at first each with different rhythmic patterns, still worked brilliantly, though performed with eight dancers only.
Tap makes its own music but it also depends on music. "Blues" owes a major debt to Reagon and her BIGLovely musicians who are virtuosos in their own right. In the amazingly complex solo by percussionist Allison Miller she seemed to control a whole orchestra alone. Bass player Fred Cash's give and take with Grant's amazing sliding, hopping, feet crossing, on his toes and the side of his shoes was surely one of the evening's bravura highlights. When Grant slithered to the ground simply spent, Cash watched him like a hawk and didn't miss a beat when the dancer "resurrected" himself. Sumbry-Edwards, who has been a major force in tap for at least a decade, at first danced introspectively as if listening to where her feet were taking but then shifted moods as she opened up to Reagon's responses. The duet between these two "musicians" became an intimate conversation between friends. Throughout the evening Reagon's presence--center space, upstage -- her amazingly rich voice and music making warmed this show with such humanity that it made seem a world a better place than it is.