Dorrance Dance
BackRock Center for the Arts
Germantown, Maryland
May 14-15, 2016
By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

Virtuoso tap claimed the Main Stage at BlackRock Center for the Arts on a recent Saturday night. Michelle Dorrance – winner of numerous awards and fellowships from the MacArthur, Alpert and Jacob’s Pillow to the Princess Grace, Field and Bessie – brought her show-stopping tappers to upcounty Montgomery for two performances, as well as a lecture and a hands-on class. The dancers include Megan Bartula, Elizabeth Burke, Warren Craft, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Leonardo Sandoval, Byron Tittle, Nicholas Van Young and Michelle Dorrance herself.

Anyone following this season’s programming at BlackRock was already teased by the component of podorhythmic (seated) foot-tapping offered by the Canadian group De Temps Antan (Nov. 19th) and a smaller component of stomping (sometimes called buck dancing or buck-and-wing) by Crooked Road Tour (Nov. 22nd). Onto what others have described as a variety of styles from Afro-Brazilian, music box and indie pop to zydeco, hoedown and swing, Dorrance grafts a little Broadway and some French-inspired folies to substantially redefine the genre.

The imaginative choreography of Dorrance exploits the awkwardness of the body to give “visual expression to zones of feeling usually expressed only musically” (Brian Siebert, New York Times, July 26, 2013). Utilizing her brother Donovan Dorrance’s zesty musical scores, Michelle Dorrance adds and subtracts, “building loop upon musical loop and breaking them down” (Ibid., April 27, 2016).

Taking its cue from the Danspace Project 2012-2013 Commissioning Initiative, “SOUNDspace” is performed in excerpts. It is adapted especially for BlackRock. The piece underwent earlier transitions as Dorrance figured out how to tap on the old wood floor of St. Mark’s Church in New York City. Instead of aluminum taps, she used leather-sole taps for her dancers in what became a throwback to the late 1800s.

SOUNDspace is driven by an underlying, relentlessly steady downbeat onto which syncopated percussive moves are frequently superimposed. The dancers move to their internal metronome. They walk on heels, glide sideways and hop with whirling arms. Solos by two of the taller men are notable. Craft in a brief andante passage runs on the soft part of his shoes. Van Young makes clicking sounds with his mouth and taps his fingers with one hand onto weighted footwork. He is the transition beat for the finale that evokes a train perpetually chugging around the loop.

“A Petite Suite, revisited” (2011/2013), with an excerpt from “Myelination”, features vocal music. There’s even a hint of the recent film “Moulin Rouge” with strains from a torch song whispered by Nicole Kidman. Initially, the piece is dominated by Dorrance and Craft in a duet laced with street-smarts. Other characters in the snappy folies range from a female drum major turned provocateur to a hip-swaggering crossdresser (Tittle). The Brazilian-born Sandoval, dolled up in dinner jacket and red tie, manages to execute a breathtaking jete a la seconde that literally fills the stage. Craft, dubbed by the New York Times as a “New Wave hoofer . . . with killer feet”, trips through a cameo at pizzicato pace – about the fastest rhythm that can be attempted.

American tap/Appalachian clogging supposedly differs in the use of the waist from its British/Irish relatives. Tap on this side of the pond thus utilizes hips that sink and resurface, not unlike some African genres. Tap by European dancers, in contrast, usually allows the hips to lift and fall. Michelle Dorrance’s choreography does not seem to fall neatly into either category. The reason lies in the surprising but unstated influence of classical ballet (including bravura). This adds gloss to her already charming and witty pieces.

Copyright © 2016 by Luella Christopher