Dorrance Dance
 with Toshi Reagon & BIGLovely,
 featuring Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York

November 16, 2016
The Blues Project

Jerry Hochman

Thanksgiving came early this year to the Joyce Theater.

Every month, even every week in New York, one has the opportunity to see superb dance performances that run the gamut of dance styles. Deciding what to see can be a difficult decision. I’ll make it easy. If you have a chance to see only one only dance performance for the rest of this year, make it Dorrance Dance’s The Blues Project, which began a two-week return engagement on Tuesday night at the Joyce. It lasts only an hour, but it’s the most entertaining solid hour of dance I can recall seeing.

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant (foreground) and Dorrance Dance dancers in "The Blues Project" by Michelle Dorrance Photo Christopher Duggan

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant (foreground)
and Dorrance Dance dancers
in “The Blues Project” by Michelle Dorrance
Photo Christopher Duggan

The Blues Project isn’t “just” tap – although it is. And it isn’t “just” a celebration of talent and diversity – although it is. And it isn’t “just” fun to watch – although it most certainly is. This is dance of the highest caliber, combined with choreography of the highest caliber, combined with music of the highest caliber. In summary, Dorrance has collaborated with Derick K. Grant, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, her dancers, and Toshi Reagon to create an hour of pure joy.

For those unacquainted with Reagon and her musical ensemble, BIGLovely, as I was, her contribution was the greatest surprise. Reagon, who plays guitar and sings distinctive song stepping-stones (not identified by title) throughout the hour, has a remarkably intriguing, rich, mellow voice that is the fulcrum upon which the choreography turns. Surprisingly, however, and counter-intuitively, the choreographic segments were not created to fit the musical segments. As Reagon explained in a post-performance discussion Wednesday night, the music was composed in response to the ideas and ambiance suggested by the choreography; the collaborative evolution followed. And perhaps most remarkably, the three solos that punctuate the program’s group episodes are different at every performance, resulting in a situation that, as Reagon commented, is “terrifying” as she and her extraordinary BIGLovely colleagues (Adam Widoff on electric guitar, Fred Cash on electric bass, Juliette Jones on violin, and Allison Miller on drums and percussion) attempt to anticipate, lead, and respond to what the dancers are doing. It makes the performance all the more astonishing.

Nicholas Van Young and Byron Tittle (foreground) and Dorrance Dance dancers in "The Blues Project" by Michelle Dorrance Photo Christopher Duggan

Nicholas Van Young and Byron Tittle (foreground)
and Dorrance Dance dancers
in “The Blues Project” by Michelle Dorrance
Photo Christopher Duggan

Essentially, from an audience point of view and however generated, The Blues Project consists of a series of songs or instrumentals with accompanying choreography. Each song seems to embody a musical genre, but at the same time expands it without corrupting it. I heard blues, bluegrass, spiritual, and some rock and folk (I didn’t hear any jazz sound, but it was probably there too), each producing or reflecting choreography that is tap, but tap as bedrock for something much more. Call it “tap plus” – tap applied to each of these genres to make tap look significantly different from presentations that focus exclusively on tap technical capability.

Byron Tittle, Juliette Jones (violin), Elizabeth Burke, Karida Griffith (foreground) and Dorrance Dance dancers in "The Blues Project" by Michelle Dorrance Photo Christopher Duggan

Byron Tittle, Juliette Jones (violin), Elizabeth Burke,
Karida Griffith (foreground) and Dorrance Dance dancers
in “The Blues Project” by Michelle Dorrance
Photo Christopher Duggan

The program begins with the dancers slowly emerging from the wings in groups of three to Reagon’s mournful blues as if straining to drag their bodies out of mud. The tempo gradually accelerates as each group and subdivisions thereof become focal points, with a surprising display of sequencing, and then come together as a unified entity – nine dancers furiously tapping in total sync with each other and the music. [There is no elevated tap “platform” – but mics populate the perimeter of the stage floor.] Jones then steps down from the upstage platform on which the musicians sit to lead the dancers in a feisty bluegrass interlude that could, by itself, be the centerpiece of a dance evening. And each of a dozen or so different segments follow thereafter, leading to the rousing conclusion. And seeing a snippet of Argentine tango momentarily materialize in the middle of a tap sequence made the struggle to navigate Manhattan’s traffic snarls worthwhile. Well, almost.

Dorrance pays homage, deservedly so, to tap’s history and the legacy of its pioneers as well as its current practitioners. And it’s not just lip service. But she doesn’t give herself enough credit. What makes Dorrance Dance and this particular program so extraordinary is the choreography that goes beyond the steps. What I saw watching The Blues Project, aside from the solos, was top-tier choreography. Dance genres are, of course, different. But characteristics of the best choreography from ballet to Broadway – choreography that’s not the product of a particularly orthodox stylistic agenda – include, in addition to unusual competence, visual stimulation and variety, musicality, and inventiveness. Each of those qualities is present in The Blues Project. And I don’t mean the steps and improvisations that the dancers themselves may create – it’s the structure of group segments and the overall piece. The sequencing, patterning, visual balance, stagecraft, and relative seamlessness of component parts, all of which are essential ingredients of the best choreographic efforts, are all present here, and seem to emerge from nowhere. While individual dancers contributed and/or put their own solos together (the choreography is attributed to Dorrance, Grant, Sumbry-Edwards, and solo improvisation by the dancers), having seen Dorrance Dance before, I have no doubt that Dorrance pulled it all together.

Michelle Dorrance and Toshi Reagon (background) in "The Blues Project" Photo Christopher Duggan

Michelle Dorrance
and Toshi Reagon (background)
in “The Blues Project”
Photo Christopher Duggan

Each dancer is given opportunities to showcase his or her own individual artistry. In the case of Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Karida Griffith, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Byron Tittle, and Nicholas Van Young, these solos are danced within a larger segmented context. But the solos by Dorrance, Grant, and Sumbry-Edwards are fascinating focal points. With the understanding that there may be some variance from performance to performance, Sumbry-Edwards’s solo last night was, to me, the most stereotypically what one might consider to be “tap”, but it was put together in a way that created a series of virtuosic highpoints modulated by equally virtuosic transitions during which she moved her feet, or legs and feet, alone, like an artistic form of restless leg syndrome. Aside from her technical prowess, Sumbry-Edwards is an engaging performer as well.

Grant’s solo seemed more experimental to me, as if he was trying to figure out what would work and what wouldn’t as he was doing it, with a level of sheepish self-deprecation thrown in. And it included isolated snippets of fascinating stuff – including a moment on point that thrilled the audience but lasted only a second or two, and slides that seemed to gobble half the stage at a clip.

Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Derick K. Grant, Karida Griffith, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards in "The Blues Project" by Michelle Dorrance Photo Christopher Duggan.

Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Derick K. Grant,
Karida Griffith, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards
in “The Blues Project” by Michelle Dorrance
Photo Christopher Duggan.

But to me the most incredible of each of these solo highlights was Dorrance’s, the initial solo, to spiritual music that sounded a step or two from gospel, brilliantly sung by Reagon. The sheer variety that Dorrance presented, the stage command, the emotional underpinning and phrasing that distinguished one segment from another leading to an almost cathartic ending, took performance tap dancing to new heights. Even Reagon appeared pleasantly shocked at how superb a performance it was as she saluted Dorrance at the solo’s end.

Sometimes what appear to be standing ovations occur when much of the audience is beginning to move toward the exits, and the stage lights happen to come up on another set of bows, and audience members politely remain in place and applaud. Not this time. When the performance ended, the full house audience stood en masse. I can’t recall a faster, or more interesting, or more enjoyable hour of dance – and the dancers appeared to enjoy what they were doing as much as the audience enjoyed watching them. As one woman said during the post-performance discussion, in a comment that was greeted with applause of recognition, this was the first time she’d smiled since election night.

The Blues Project is cause for smiles, celebration, and thanksgiving. If you’re traveling between, say, San Francisco and Los Angeles, make a detour to see it. If you’re already in or near New York, you have no excuse, and you’ll never forgive yourself if you miss it.