It was a dance-off last night at the Arlene Schnizter Concert Hall, or a tap-off, to be specific. The show starts with tappers merging from both sides of the stage, five on one side and four on the other, making the nine members of Dorrance Dance, a tap troupe from New York City. The sound mounted as each side echoed and raised the other; like a poker game, the taps were like piles of chips continuously thrown onto the table. Clad in the light fabrics and colors of spring, the entertaining tension was offset with a lighthearted tune reminiscent of 1950’s musicals. With the five members of BIGLovely, a blues band also from NYC, serving as the backdrop and soundtrack for the show, this White Bird presentation of “The Blues Project”, a tap dance performance set to live music, was the most fun I’ve had at the Arlene Schnitzer this year.
It was the perfect finale for White Bird. After a season of great performances, featuring a variety of dance from ballet to contemporary, the sounds of the inaugural taps of the Dorrance Dance Project drummed and boomed like distant fireworks, like a July 4th finale, boom, boom, tap, tap, one right after another, escalating to the kind of climax you sense will quiet everything else. The show progressed to this point in spirited, soulful and fun routines, culminating in a standing ovation and a grateful and celebratory farewell to White Bird until next season.
Blues music can bring all kinds of sounds, and BIGLovely delivers good mix. They were swingy, folky, blue-grassy, and just blues. Sometimes a slower paced drum beat behind the deep sensuous moans and bellows of the band’s front woman, Toshi Reagan, the experience instantly becomes downright sexy. It was interesting to see tap dance adjust and perform to these slower rhythms; swinging arms suddenly tracing slower, more voluptuous arcs switching from the punchier, more rapid motions the faster beats provoked.
Dorrance Dance displayed so much range this way. Scenes shifted with BIGLovely’s wide musical repertoire so that the choreography would resemble a country square dance or even a hoedown. This appearance was more than suggested by the country costumes by Andrew Jordan. Loopy kicks and the seemingly freestyle flapping of heels looked like fun jigs you’d see at a western country festival. Then the next song would be one of those sultrier, hefty tunes, with lyrics so simple and just the plain opposite of cryptic, a straightforward provocation of longing or discontent, and the movement portrayed that weight in more deliberate taps and ponderous shuffles.
Tap dance is deceiving to watch at times. From the waist up, the body yanks and dips, so that it almost looks uncontrolled. I found myself watching each dancer closely to track what part of the body was determining the motions. The legs and feet powerfully command the body. It’s like strings are attached to the ankles, and the upper body is a puppet, the constant small but strong movements of the feet pull and guide the movements of the head, arms and waist. It’s a unique sight, compared to other dance, and it’s cool to watch the upper body at the behest of the feet, visually displaying the fast, often chaotic gestures and physical language of tap, tap, tap, tap, tap!
This troupe’s chemistry was like old classmates, old friends, people who know how to push each other’s buttons, so to speak, to coax and compel one another to bring out the best. And to have fun! Near the end of the show, arranged in a huddle, they playfully nudged each other aside, vying for the spotlight where they could individually show off their moves. They each got their chance and showcased their different styles before being pushed aside.
Now as I write this I can’t decide which I enjoyed more: the collective dancing or the solos. There were three long solo sets, performed with steadfast physical stamina and dedication, which aroused the crowd. I’ve never heard so many whistles and audible praise from an audience at the Schnitzer. The way the dancers moved, the escalation of their taps, claps and stomps, it almost felt fueled by these audience responses, like each of those sets went on for longer than they were supposed to. This probably wasn’t the case, but what a thrill it was to watch each soloist go at it like it was the energy of the crowd that was further energizing them.
Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Michelle Dorrance, founder of the dance group, especially stood out here. I couldn’t help but shake my head in sheer amazement watching Sumbry-Edwards move. She just kept going like her legs were running on a battery that recharged on exertion itself; it even seemed to astound her. She was a galvanizing drum-roll all by herself, she was a hundred of those firecrackers, she was all the unabated energy and excitement of someone who is doing exactly what they love and want to be doing.
Dorrance embraced the music in her dance like BIGLovely was playing her all-time favorite song. Her taps were like back up beats to BIGLovely. She scraped the floor as if to draw out chords. Then she’d clap and steadily stomp to create her own percussion. Tap is just as much about sound as it is movement and when the music stopped, the quick and powerful steps resounded throughout the concert hall as solidly as the instruments had before. And conversely, the softening taps concluded a set like a song which fades out with a few last residual beats.
I love Blues music. I love it for all the ways it can make you feel, for the way the notes oscillate from somber to sweet. And for all the ways you can dance to it, slowly swaying or exuberantly swinging. “The Blues Project” was a fun, lively show, and a great way to end a White Bird season which showcased all the dazzle, grace and brilliance of dance choreography across the board.