Dorrance’s partners dance jazz in the most basic way, for its propulsiveness and its amenability to individual imagination.
Dorrance Dance in Concert, presented by World Music/CRASHarts at the Emerson/Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont St., Boston, MA, January 13 through 15.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Syncopation can be thought of as the disturbance of a regular musical beat, induced by holding over a tone from one count to the next. Tap dance, just another form of music, uses syncopation with great and varied effect. Alongside an ongoing jazz pulse, syncopation can create counter-rhythms and surprises. In Michelle Dorrance’s unaccompanied and aptly titled SOUNDspace (2013), syncopations have a visceral impact as the auditory stimulus piles onto the visual. The dancer hesitates, stumbles, pulls up short, exhales, charges on. We don’t need any other story.
When the three dancers (Elizabeth Burke, Warren Craft and Nicholas Van Young) begin the piece, they take turns building up a pattern one or two steps at a time, on three miked platforms. The rhythm is all. It seems like we’ve just been hearing/seeing random phrases, but when four more dancers appear on the stage below them, they apply a soft, steady clicking with their heels. The four then use this pulse to anchor their own stream of small variations.
Kathy Kaufman’s lighting reveals mainly their feet and legs, so there are no other distractions. We can see that when the dancers change their foot positions, shifting one out to the side or stabbing with a toe, the sound changes too. The accents move around to create rhythms over the steady drone of the heels. Soon sliding steps are added, suspending the action over two or more beats. The quartet sidles together offstage, without turning off their heel-stream.
Dorrance appears, in a duet with Burke. Driven by the same soft heel-beaten motor, they cross the stage with slides, levitating wings (rising on the toes or off the floor with both legs out to the sides), and embroidery on the basic pulse. Burke leaves and Dorrance has a solo that shows off her super-fast but clearly articulated taps, her unexpected changes of rhythm and sudden stops.
Four of the original dancers gather around Craft, who seems to be standing still, though he isn’t, ignoring their energetic dancing around him. Craft is the oddball in the bunch, none of whom are clones of each other in the first place. After the four leave, he does a solo of his own, stepping quietly with big gestures of his arms and hands. He’s focused inward; the movement seems internally generated, expressionistic almost. He builds up to a kind of tantrum, with rude vocal sounds that become screams and subside. The silence around him makes his emoting seem intense, even frightening.
Soon the others return, including the original trio. After some more solos incorporated into ensemble choreography, Nicholas Van Young takes the stage. Big and hefty, not an airborne dancer, he works from the hips down and stomps into the floor for emphasis. He augments his foot rhythms with claps, clicks, and vocal sounds, orchestrated with the slapping and patting of body-music. He begins one phrase with a big, swooping gesture that begs to include the whole audience, and eventually it does.
The dance, and the whole first half of the evening, ends with all the dancers crossing the stage in their own versions of the sliding step.
Dorrance’s partners dance jazz in the most basic way, for its propulsiveness and its amenability to individual imagination. None of the choreography in the evening was built literally on a jazz or pop song framework, and the first half, without any accompanying musical foundation, made its own music. The program’s second half was more like a conventional tap show, with musical numbers and opportunities for members of the company to wield their improvisational talents.
You might call this the “character” part of the show, where music and acting up supplement the development of footwork. Easier for the audience to follow than having to hear and follow the chorography alone. Dorrance began a Petite Suite (2011) as a singer. The music, played by Donovan Dorrance, Gregory Richardson, Aaron Marcellus and three of the dancers, covered songs by Fiona Apple, the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Manu Chao.
There’s a skit where the dancers, led by Leonardo Sandoval in a faux-minstrel tuxedo and huge Afro haircut, parade their kooky individual costumes. Van Young is the most outrageous, as a primping, mugging trans in a pink muscle shirt, black sequined scarf, and lots of girly makeup. The music hinted at a generic South American sound, but the dancers did nothing that looked like samba.
To Aaron Marcellus singing “Nature Boy” in a rubato-rubberized falsetto, Warren Craft did a more serious tap solo of his own devising, We Came Here to Do One Thing.
Myelination (2015), to original music by Donovan Dorrance and Gregory Richardson, was an exuberant closer for the whole dance ensemble. It featured some of the innovations in Dorrance’s tap vocabulary: sliding steps that wove seamlessly into standing steps, the use of all parts of the feet as well as the usual toes, heels and insteps, flying wing steps, and rapid-fire locomotion that didn’t abandon the rhythm or the intricate steps. Dorrance can arrange all this for clusters and circles of dancers as well as conventional lineups. Within it all, she makes spaces for individual dancers to emerge and have small solos of their own. But even in the unison sections, they keep their own identities.
This last dance was the fastest of the evening but the dancers showed no signs of letup. Dorrance’s choreographic ingenuity hasn’t either. It’s reported that she’s planning to turn Myelination into a full-evening piece. I hope the Boston presenters will bring that to us.
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.