Michelle Dorrance leads from behind. The 38-year-old tap wizard, superintending glorious dancing at the Joyce through the end of the year, often comes off as “just one of the girls,” a foot-soldier in an army of brilliant performers, and that seems to be the way she wants it. Two works, one brand-new and the other finding its form after months of development, both demonstrate what happens when you assemble a gaggle of good artists and give them their heads. She’s as likely to be found at the back of her pack as out in front of it.
The most recent work on the Dorrance Dance program is billed as a collaboration among the four women who perform it to recorded music. Until the Real Thing Comes Along (a letter to ourselves), named for the least-known of the wonderful American standards performed by Fats Waller, is the product of a few weeks in the studio for Dorrance and three guest artists: Jillian Meyers and Melinda Sullivan who hail from the Los Angeles “commercial dance” scene, and Josette Wiggan, a tap-world veteran also from L.A. (New Yorker Hannah Heller replaces Meyers in the second week of the season.)
It opens in darkness; we hear the clatter of taps before we see the dancers. When the lights come up we find them sharing a special tap floor with a rack of costumes (designed by Amy Page with the performers), acting out the song lyrics, and moving in styles derived from ’30s movies and vernacular forms. There’s a little cross-dressing, a little pathos, and a lot of slip-sliding virtuosic tap-dancing. Meyers plays a neglected suitor, a fan of Sullivan’s mustachioed character. Abandoned, she dresses up in four sequined blazers when her colleagues aren’t looking; when they return she, armed with silk scarves, takes turns as a bullfighter and a desperado. Underlying the cosplay, always, is the dancing, likely to be different at every show.
Myelination, a huge production with five musicians on a range of instruments, makes its third appearance here, growing sharper and more complex each time. Dorrance’s brother Donovan plays piano and clarinet, Gregory Richardson bass and clarinet, and Aaron Marcellus croons appealing scat, accompanying himself on a keyboard; a couple of dancers (Nicholas Van Young and Warren Craft) double on instruments other than their fabulous feet. Wearing black and gray and white, the nine tappers alternate between marching and striding in almost military formations, emphatic and angular, dark and foreboding, and executing a variety of smooth variations, up on their toes, down on their knees. Like a jazz band, they groove together and separately; everyone gets a solo turn, and these give the instrumentalists a chance to let loose. Van Young, especially, startles; a big guy in a jacket and tie, he commands the stage in tap shoes as if his bulk were helium.
Joining the tappers for this outing are break dancers Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and Matthew “Megawatt” West, in sneakers; when the tappers go high, they go low, doing backspins and head somersaults and other twisty things. Asherie duets with Dorrance, coiling around her feet. Rounding out the tap ensemble are Christopher Broughton, Brittany DeStefano, Chaudia Rahardjanoto, Leonardo Sandoval, Byron Tittle, and Gabriel Winns Ortiz; Kathy Kaufmann provides appropriately moody lighting.
When I got home Tuesday night and tried to sleep, I noticed that some force in my body — my nervous system, maybe, or my bloodstream — was still in motion, even after I lay down. Dorrance and her regiment manage to charge the air, and charge up the audience. The intricate rhythms of this percussive experience linger in our consciousness, in our deepest selves, long after we leave the theater.