At the end of their performance at the Modlin Center on Friday night, the Dorrance Dance performers could have torn up the floor and thrown it at us and we’d have cheered them.
I’m no tap expert, but I can safely say that’s pretty much what they did.
Tapper Michelle Dorrance, a 2015 MacArthur Fellow and 2011 “Bessie” Award winner (kind of like the Oscars for dance), founded Dorrance Dance in 2011 “to honor tap dance’s uniquely beautiful history in a new, dynamic, and compelling context; not by stripping the form of its tradition, but by pushing it - rhythmically, technically, and conceptually.”
The joy of watching this company work derives, in part, from the way these tap dancers’ hot/cool affect turns their blinding facility into a secret they share and then withhold, repeatedly. They build delicious tension that carries them along lightly and then drops them to the floor with the beat, to a gasp.
“Jungle Blues” (2012), set to the eponymous music by Jelly Roll Morton, opened the program with a slow build, accumulating hints of just what these dancers could do to the floor, to sound, sliding, scraping, drumming, and riffing on the gin joint, flask and all. “Three to One” (2011) juxtaposed barefoot dancers with a tapper - more on that below. And the full length “Myelination” (2017), with musicians onstage behind the dancers, wove choreographed segments with improvisation to create a long form jazz poem, sometimes rambling, but always inspiring.
Because “the black body on stage is never neutral,” as Theresa Ruth Howard wrote for Dance Magazine back in August, I must note that “Three to One” resonated strangely, with a rectangle of light revealing Dorrance’s white legs in tap shoes, flanked on each side by the bare legs and feet of Byron Tittle and Matthew “Megawatt” West, both African-American men. This dance, choreographed in 2011 and performed by different casts over time, has been deservedly lauded for its exploration of contemporary/modern dance and tap side by side. But this cast raised questions which I could not set aside. Why the white woman in the center? Why the black men with no shoes? Why does she remain seemingly afraid, after they leave? Is she in danger? Were they?
Lingering most in my mind after this show, however, are the gorgeously unique dancers who make up this tight ensemble. The spidery Warren Craft’s wildly anarchic relationship with gravity sometimes lent him a comedic edge, and sometimes, more fascinatingly, an air of menace as if his dance were the dance of death.
Byron Tittle’s pliant headstand in the midst of a wave of dancers crossing the stage during “Myelination” felt, for a moment, like the center of the world. At one point, Nicholas Van Young stepped out, broad shouldered and dense, and gathered the room’s energy to him like a wave until a lightness blossomed under him and the crowd shouted. And Dorrance herself, with a lanky frame and burning feet, had that tapper’s look of listening to the music ricochet along her own bones and bounce back from the audience’s attentive skulls.