Tap wizard Michelle Dorrance is nothing if not resourceful; years ago, she mounted a whole program of irresistible dancing at St. Mark’s Church, where metal taps are not permitted on the sanctuary floor, and brought the house down with dancers clad in socks, bare feet, or shoes with wooden taps. At 37, she’s won just about every award available to an artist. Her company rakes in money at the box office, something very few dance troupes manage to do. Go see her hour-long Blues Project, in town through this weekend, to learn why; it’s the most satisfying evening I’ve spent in a theater this year.
A native of North Carolina and the daughter of a ballet teacher and a soccer coach, Dorrance knows how to captain a team. Onstage at the Joyce she helms an ensemble of stars ranging from choreographic collaborators (Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards) to her musical director, Toshi Reagon, an understated singer-songwriter who subtly references the history of black dance in America as the diverse group of hoofers bangs it out. Reagon’s band, BIGLovely, is a group of skilled musicians who know how to listen: Fiery percussionist Allison Miller makes a big noise on her trap set, but since tap is itself a percussive form, she knows to stay quiet when Dorrance and her crew are riffing.
Fragments of Langston Hughes’s poetry haunt Reagon’s lyrics, as does a plaintive meditation that might reference the Middle Passage, where enslaved Africans met Irish sailors and birthed American tap dancing. The opening number, more clog-dancing than contemporary tap, is driven by fiddler Juliette Jones, standing with the movers as if they were off in a barn somewhere; dancer Nicholas Van Young, previously a sound design collaborator with Dorrance, strums a washboard hung around his neck. Tracking and producing complex rhythms, the dancers hit on all parts of their bodies, condensing centuries of black music-making into a few tight minutes.
But it’s the blizzard of sound they make with their feet, crisp and clean and complicated, that pulls the audience in. The shiny white floor, amplified with four knee-level mics, allows them to slip and slide without losing their purchase on the rhythmic phrases. This is not a “flash act” in the traditional sense of the term: Mostly it’s straight-up hoofing, with the men wearing vests that display tattooed biceps and the women in Andrew Jordan’s Forties-style, knee-skimming dirndl dresses (Dorrance changes into tailored trousers and a long-sleeve blouse halfway through). But the younger guys, Byron Tittle and Christopher Broughton, manage some fancy flips, splits, and handstands, shades of the Nicholas Brothers, amid a jitterbug sequence. Six dancers — Elizabeth Burke, Karida Griffith, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Van Young, Tittle, and Broughton — trapped in Kathy Kaufmann’s circle of light, tap in unison, taking up barely a meter of floor.
These artists range from college age to their forties, though you wouldn’t know it to look at them; their range of bodies are anchored by the most fluent feet imaginable. They float and they hit, complementing the BIGLovely combo (which also includes bassist Fred Cash and guitarist Adam Widoff, on electric instruments) overlooking the dancers from a platform behind their floor. Dorrance herself is a marvel, all elbows and knees, totally tuned in to the music, the mood, and the cultural roots of the material. No tuxedos for this gang; they’re down-home in the best possible way. Make time for them over your Thanksgiving holiday.
The Blues Project
Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon & BIGLovely
175 Eighth Avenue
Through November 27