By Jessica Lockhart
This terrific performance was the grand finale from a beloved dance festival doing its best under enormous pressure.
And Still You Must Swing, streaming as part of Jacob’s Pillow Virtual Festival.
Tap dance brought down the (virtual) house in the final performance of the Pillow’s 2020 online only festival. And Still You Must Swing supplied a hefty serving of exquisite tap dancing performed by some exceptional dancers. We watched an archive from a 2016 world premiere in which ace tappers Dormeshia, Derek K. Grant, and Jason Samuel Smith teamed up with a live jazz combo.
The dancers and musicians shared the stage for this evening length performance. The latter were wearing gold colored tap shoes that shone so brilliantly you couldn’t help but focus on their feet. The sound of their taps was thrilling, the speed and virtuosity they displayed mind-blowing. Here was ample proof why the trio has been called the world’s most influential ambassadors of tap. They have all been dancing since a very early age and their careers are extensive: they have appeared in major tap productions on Broadway or filmed in Hollywood. Their intricate body movements exuded a lovely flow and sway, undulating that were lanky, graceful, and swooping. That upper physicality was contrasted with the sharp, powerful stomps of their digging footwork, which sounded as jazzy as the musicians’ instruments. It was also very apparent during the performance how well these three appreciated each other’s talents: they affectionately watched other members as they moved, responding with gentle smiles and nods. This sense of comfortable togetherness made it feel less like a performance than an opportunity to watch them as they exhibited their skills to each other.
Tap dancing is about balance and precision. But in this show Dormeshia, who was the lead choreographer, wanted to highlight tap’s another essential element: swing. Being able to swing means you have to exhibit a great sense of musicality, not just a mastery of dance mechanics. The live accompaniment of piano, bass, and drums supplied the jazzy background– the dancers shared that lyricism and riffed off each other. The performance was very much about give and take, an exercise in the call and response technique,. A dancer performed a short phrase and stopped for one of the musicians to follow with a response. They would continue this playfulness, back and forth. Their interpretations of each other’s rhythms became a kind of complex and delightful game: the moods varied, from joyous and introspective to searching. There was also a special guest, dancer Camille A. Brown, a contemporary choreographer who isn’t a tapper. In her dances she is known for her use of intricate rhythms as well as a focus on African American culture. She wore sneakers, but moved as quickly and powerfully as the tappers.
In the past, Jacob’s Pillow festival regularly featured discussions with educators and dancers about their work. They are offering these dialogues in their virtual presentations as well. Prior to the start of And Still You Must Swing we learned from dance scholar Melanie George that back in 2016 — just a day before this concert — two Black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police in two separate incidents. This was during the first wave of Black Lives Matter, and emotions were high around the country. At one surprising point during the performance Dormesha stopped dancing. She rubbed her hands together and almost walked offstage but she stayed, even though she was crying. She then said, “it’s not easy when your people are being killed on the street, I can’t apologize because it’s real.” She took another moment and continued dancing with renewed force. A few segments later,when Derek K. Grant was also dancing a solo, he too became overcome with emotion. He stopped, raised his hands overhead while weeping, and called out his daughters ‘name.
Watching this performance brought underlined the fact that, four years since this show, we haven’t made enough progress. Black Lives Matter has become a renewed force since the killing of George Floyd, and currently a massive protest has followed the shooting of another black man, Jacob Blake, who was shot in the back seven times by a policeman. A recent sympathetic walk-out by pro athletes has stunned the sports world and beyond. The Pillow intentionally programmed And Still You Must Swing now as a commentary on America’s turmoil. They are making an admirably bold statement — the dance world will not stay silent.
The excellent jazz combo was directed by drummer Allison Miller. On piano was Carmen Staaf, Alex Hernadez on bass, and Gabriel Roxbury on Djembe. The mutual respect between the musicians and dancers was evident.
This performance was the grand finale from a beloved dance festival doing its best under enormous pressure. Jacob’s Pillow scrambled, just like the rest of the world, and found a way to bring us exhilarating dance during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Jessica Lockhart is a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and has a BA in Communication from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is a Maine Association of Broadcasters award-winning independent journalist. Currently, she also works as program director at WMPG Community radio.