The performing arts are currently undergoing one of their occasional convulsions, as established ways of presenting art, dance, music and theater are remade along with their subjects of inquiry.
From a critic’s standpoint, it’s been welcome to see, as fresh thinking and new ideas spice up the cultural menu to delicious effect. In the case of Dorrance Dance, a New York-based company founded by a North Carolina performer and choreographer, the art under transformation is that of tap dance, whose history is not terribly long but which has made a powerful impact in the American memory.
Dorrance Dance opened the Duncan Theatre’s annual modern dance series Jan. 19 and 20, and the program had the great merit right off the bat of being unique. The sound of those taps, and the weight they bring to legs and feet, anchor the dancing in a way that changes the way pieces are conceived and executed.
A case in point was the opening work of the three on the intermissionless program, Jungle Blues, set by company founder Michelle Dorrance to a song by Jelly Roll Morton written in 1927. In this piece, dancers tossed off tap routines in front of a chorus line in the back of the stage formed by the other members of the 10-person troupe who swayed gently back and forth with the music as they faced left to the audience.
The dancers in front, including Dorrance herself, traded solos and duets, impressively demonstrating the kind of forceful physicality needed to make tap compelling. All of the dancers gave their appearances a sense of positive energy, which is what you need for tap: This is essentially showboat performance art, like its later cousin break dancing, it is designed to dazzle and fascinate. And dancer Christopher Broughton, credited here for his solo improvisation, did even more than that, coming in from offstage walking on his hands with legs curved and flipped back above him, scorpion-style.
It was diverting and very entertaining, and in the second work, Three to One, which Dorrance created in 2011, the performance opens with just legs on view as three dancers wearing black and shielded in darkness from waist up trade foot and leg choreography; the central dancer (Dorrance) has tap shoes on, while the dancers on either side of her were barefoot.
The three (the other two were Byron Tittle and Matthew “Megawatt” West) rattled off interesting patterns of leg and foot movement to Aphex Twin’s “Nanou.” Dorrance followed that with a solo dance to another piece of British pop, “A Rat’s Nest,” by the moody Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke; she demonstrated a wide vocabulary of steps, used in the service of a dance that felt frustrated, as if she could not find the way out of an invisible box to get to a place where she could share her joyful art.
The last work on the Jan. 20 program, which played to a packed house, was the longest and most elaborate. Myelination, which refers to the conduction of nerve energy in the body, was created about three years ago by Dorrance as a small work and then greatly expanded last year along with contributions from West and Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie. Three live musicians were on stage for this piece, including Dorrance’s brother Donovan, a pianist, to perform an original score composed by him and bassist Gregory Richardson.
This long dance featured a number of solo pieces as well as some welcome ensemble tapping, with each section of the score using a strong rhythmic pattern to set an industrial-strength pulse, which seemed like a better fit for this company’s style of dance than the less driven music of the first two dances. With the length of this piece, one could see more clearly the company’s depth of talent, and the feeling of constant innovation that Dorrance has instilled.
Myelination is a high-energy piece, even in its slower passages, and there were ample opportunities for individual dancers to demonstrate their agility. As a showcase of individual performers it is an intriguing work, but as a coherent dance it falls a little short, primarily because despite Dorrance’s remarkable rethinking of the art form, tap remains a spotlight technique, one that lives and breathes best as dance of display.
For it to work in a more durable way, this company might want to consider anchoring some of their taps in something more akin to story ballets than modern dance momentitos. With a strong narrative that can easily be followed, audiences can get a better handle on just what she’s done and is trying to do, and show off the dancers in her bold, exciting company to greater effect thereby.