The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater
October 6, 2016
Michelle Dorrance, recipient of a 2015 MacArthur “genius grant,” has garnered a lot of positive attention for her innovative tap choreography, and I agree that the accolades are well deserved. Created in collaboration with dancers Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and musician and vocalist Toshi Reagon, The Blues Project shines in every way possible, and leaves one feeling not battered by the blues but uplifted by the love the artists show for their respective passions.
The costumes for the dancers, by Andrew Jordan — 1940s or 1950s style dresses for the women and vests and pants for the men, all in fairly muted colors — evoke timelessness and simplicity, letting the viewer focus on the movement and sounds. Microphones, like footlights, surround the dance floor. The nine dancers, including Dorrance, jump into the music with swinging arms and tapping toes. The noise of the dancers’ feet is glorious — swishes and drags and rips and smacks.
Rather than a series of straightforward ensemble tap routines, Dorrance mixes up everything. All sorts of influences emerge in the movement, from African dance to old school hoofing, and maybe even shades of flamenco and hip-hop. She changes the number of dancers, the moods, the compositional qualities, etc. Have you seen a tapper on her knees, or a tapper stand on his hands? Discard what you thought you knew about tap. What the audience sees in The Blues Project is tap dance in a format that resembles contemporary dance. It’s particularly eye-opening because one realizes the true versatility of tap and its ability to adapt and appeal beyond the Broadway style many traditionally associate tap with.
In one section, the dancers wear sneakers, so their footfalls are suddenly quiet. It seemed to me then that the musicians broadcast the dancers’ heartbeats. In another section, the dancers huddle in a tight group, humorously pushing each other out of the way to steal the coveted position in front and the limelight that goes with it. From serious to light, the music and dance soared.
The five musicians, with rare exception, stay on the stage, on an elevated platform, throughout the performance, and indeed, are an integral part of it. Reagon, on acoustic guitar, with her band, BIGLovely, play an equal role with the dancers in The Blues Project. Reagon’s voice is incredibly sweet, making her version of the blues less gritty and more angelically funky. If she led a church, I’d worship there! Among the rest of the musicians, Allison Miller, on drums and percussion, had a chance to go to town in a solo that impressed with her zest and range. Very much like the tappers themselves, she brought complex rhythms to life. Juliette Jones, on violin, came down from the platform and contributed a spirited solo in which her fiddling perfectly accompanied the dancers, whose bouncing legs reminded me of clogging in the American South and its Scotch-Irish roots.
The dancers, too, of course, have moments in which they individually stand out, and a few have significant solos. Think tap dance is always about being fast and loud? Nope. Dorrance utterly wowed with a heartbreaking slow solo. Audience members spontaneously rose to their feet when Dorrance finished her solo turn. Sumbry-Edwards, to a song by about freedom, also wowed, bringing added depth to Reagon’s achingly pretty vocals. While one felt the struggle embodied by the lyrics, the overwhelming feeling was joy.
The pure joy The Blues Project delivered was especially welcome during a time of ugly, tension-filled election year politics. Even the older crowd at the Kennedy Center, who are generally partial to classical ballet, appeared to have fallen for Dorrance and her collaborators. If they were running for office, I imagine they’d all be winners.