REVIEW: "DORRANCE DANCE" — Segerstrom Center for the Arts
COSTA MESA — APRIL 8, 2023
Michelle Dorrance is an extraordinary tapper, but what stands out most about her company isn’t just her skill, or the skill of her dancers, but rather the funky individuality they all share. She doesn’t seem to have a “type” – the people in her company are all incredibly different, even slightly eccentric. That goes for Dorrance, too. Sometimes, as she dances, she seems to dissolve into an assemblage of knees and elbows, all flying around. Meanwhile, below, her feet create jagged, playful, rowdy rhythms.
Her shows are like family gatherings; everyone takes on multiple roles, everyone has a chance to shine, and everyone seems to get along. Size and shape don’t really matter, and race is a footnote. Interestingly enough, Segerstrom Center for the Art’s dazzling performance this past Saturday evening pretty much validated all those assertions, and then some.
Enter Dorrance Dance, the award-winning New York ensemble that expands tap in a different direction, turning tap literally on its head, allying the art with genres like break-dance and hip-hop, and finally breaking up the unyielding vertical stance that previously defined the art of tap-dancing.
And collectively, Michelle Dorrance and her 10-dancer company reflected plenty of racial, physical and stylistic diversity for this one-night-only performance, while delivering precise unison footwork that matched or exceeded any other cookie-cutter tap corps that has gone on before her. To put it succinctly…they fly.
Based in New York City, and celebrating their 12th anniversary, Dorrance Dance has been enjoyed by audiences around the world and honored with awards and accolades that are too numerous to count. In addition to creating dazzling tap performances, the company is intensely focused on engaging communities on the history and legacy of tap dancing as a Black American art form. This includes leading lecture demonstrations, touring workshops, school performances, and initiatives to bring dance education programs to public schools.
Dorrance orchestrates her dancers as a stylish group, but there is plenty of space for their individual personalities to shine. Dorrance herself has seemingly endless permutations of rhythm and texture at her feet. In a trio with other female dancers, their feet skim the surface of the stage, creating complex lace-like patterns. Dorrance’s rhythm tap (as opposed to theatrical tap dance) is as much a musical form as a physical one; some of the dancers even double as instrumentalists as dancers actualize and amplify the rhythmic layers and crosscurrents of the music, offering their own creative expression.
The company has received countless accolades and rave reviews and has performed at venues including Danspace Project, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, The Joyce Theater, New York City Center, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Vail Dance Festival, the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Works and Process at the Guggenheim, Carolina Performing Arts at UNC Chapel Hill, Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, among many others, including international venues in Canada, France, Germany, Spain, England, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Russia.
In 2012, Dorrance began creating the first half of her masterpiece, “SOUNDspace,’’ while considering her influences, lineage and legacy. As such, the piece recalls not just the heavy metal tap style of many contemporary artists but also the lighter-textured leather sole work of early tap dancing — and somehow, just about everything in between.
And Dorrance, ever the firebrand, does take it all in very different and unexpected directions. While “SOUNDspace’’ is a riveting showcase of tap stylings, it is also vividly theatrical and conceptually cohesive, fueled by the dancer/choreographer’s ongoing commitment to the exploration of movement as music. She unfurls footwork of pristine clarity, impeccable control, impressive dynamic range, and seemingly endless invention.
One moment she is tapping furiously, unleashing a blistering fusillade of taps that pack a thrilling, visceral punch, her body all angles, twisting and turning on the edge of balance. The next she is etching smooth sliding arcs with a figure skater’s grace. And, in ensemble work, Dorrance has a very keen architectural eye, creating patterns that send the dancers in circles, crisscrossing lines, tight phalanxes. It is really a marvel of infinite rhythmic variations.
Costumed in shades of grey and black by Mishay Petronelli, Michelle Dorrance and Byron Tittle, the dancers push their technical and expressive boundaries in improvised solos and conversational — sometimes confrontational — duets. There are microphones placed along the front of the stage at foot level to capture every nuance, and the clarity and complexity of the tapping becomes a transcendent language, reminding me of Indian tabla drumming and bols, the spoken rhythmic mnemonics used in kathak.
Basically, “SOUNDspace” is a set of shared choreography by Michelle Dorrance as well as solo improvisation by the dancers, and explores a range of ways for the body to serve as a uniquely capable percussive instrument. This part of the performance introduces the dancers and the company, performing mostly without music to highlight the percussive rhythms of the footwork. Originally created as a site-specific work that explored the unique acoustics of New York City's St. Mark's Church through the myriad sounds and textures of the feet it produced, it remains an homage to the history and legacy of tap dancing.
Three dancers mount a platform near the edge of the stage, equipped with a special surface and microphones to capture the sound of their steps. Kathy Kaufmann’s evocative lighting, a delight throughout the performance, initially portrays the dancers as moving shadows. As the light intensifies, their figures emerge, stomping out a synchronous beat before taking turns soloing while the others maintain the rhythm, slowly weaving a rich tapestry of accumulating beats and syncopations, illuminated only from the knees down, in a kind of ritual call to action. Their faces and upper bodies in darkness, the focus is kept on their legs and feet, and their moves became increasingly complex and difficult, full of lightning-speed shuffles, buffalos, and Cincinnatis that sounded the beat in perfect unison.
Elements of percussion are incorporated with snaps, hand claps, slaps on the belly, chest, and thighs and even vocalized "whoop"s to punctuate the rhythm of intricate footwork taking the alchemy of live dance to new heights as compelling performers create the illusion of bonelessness through kinetic movement. Not only a visual treat but an auditory masterpiece.
As a rare artist who can make a dance that is as innovative as it is engaging, 2015 MacArthur (“Genius Grant”) Award-winning dance artist Michelle Dorrance leads a company comprised of some of the best hoofers in the business. And for this Segerstrom Center for the Arts engagement, her group auspiciously exhibited such virtuoso exuberance and show-stopping dance skills that made this Easter weekend presentation of “Dorrance Dance” truly a night to remember.
SEGERSTROM CENTER FOR THE ARTS PRESENTS, “DORRANCE DANCE;” Artistic Director/Choreographer MICHELLE DORRANCE, with solo improvisation by the dancers; Original Music by GREGORY RICHARDSON; Original Body Percussion Score by LEONARDO SANDOVAL; Lighting Design by KATHY KAUFMAN; Costumes by MISHAY PETRONELLI, MICHELLE DORRANCE & BYRON TITTLE; Production Manager/Sound Designer CHRISTOPHER MARC; Development Manager AMANDA HAMELINE; Co-Dance Captains ELIZABETH BURKE & BYRON TITTLE; Musical Director GREGORY RICHARDSON;
Stage Manager OLIVIA BROWN.
DANCERS: ELIZABETH BURKE (Co-Dance Captain/Dancer; North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble); MICHELLE DORRANCE (Stomp; Derick Grant’s Imagine Tap!; Jason Samuels Smith’s Charlie’s Angels/Chasing the Bird; Ayodele Casel’s Diary of a Tap Dancer; Mable Lee’s Dancing Ladies); STERLING HARRIS (Dancer; he/him; Chicago Tap Theatre; M.A.D.D. Rhythms; Music from the Sole; YellowShed; 333); LUKE HICKEY (Dancer; Dance Magazine’s “25 To Watch” in 2020; North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble; Jacob’s Pillow; Birdland Jazz Club; The Chelsea Factory); ADDI LOVING (Dancer; MUNY St. Louis; currently a junior at Pace University); CLAUDIA RAHARDJANOTO (Dancer; Deutsche Opera Berlin); LEONARDO SANDOVAL (Dancer; Music from the Sole; 2021 Dance Magazine “25 To Watch;” 2022 Vilcek Foundation Prize for Creative Promise; 2022 NYSCA/ NYFA Artist Fellow in choreography).
MUSICIANS: KYLE EVERETT; AARON MARCELLUS; MATT PARKER; GREGORY RICHARDSON.
Dorrance Dance has a running time of approximately one hour and a half, including one 15-minute intermission. Performance is one night, April 8th, 2023 at 7:30PM, Segerstrom Hall. The next stops on the 2023 Dorrance Dance Spring Tour are San Luis Obispo on April 12th, Chicago on April 22nd, and Boston on May 19th and 20th.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report