The ecology of New York City’s tap community has, for 29 years, been intertwined with the off-Broadway show Stomp. Rhythm-based dancers of all stripes, including Sean Curran, the modern and Irish step dancer who now directs the dance department at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (across Second Avenue from Stomp’s’s bedraggled Orpheum Theater), and Michelle Dorrance, whose brilliant dance troupe inhabits the Joyce Theater in Chelsea right now, earned livings as members of its cast, meeting mentors, banging on garbage cans, rhythmically sweeping sawdust, communicating without recourse to spoken language, and generally delighting generations of tourists.
But Stomp has announced its closing, citing declining ticket sales in the post-pandemic environment. Its touring companies will continue to ply the continent. But at the Joyce, opening her own show of three world premieres, Dorrance has assembled an all-star quintet of older female Stomp alums, who throw down every limb in Rhythms of Being, a dazzling display of body percussion, from gumboot moves (using the body to make complex rhythms, originally South African) to hambone (“body music,” originally created by enslaved people forbidden access to drums) to straight-ahead tapping. Dressed in Dede Ayite’s tough-girl, gangsta-style outfits (black leather, studs, chains, sturdy boots), they slap their hands on various body parts, in tight unison and complex canon, creating joyful and ominous noise with the simplest of materials. This piece alone is worth the price of admission (kudos to Dorrance’s Stomp sistas), but it’s only the warm-up for another hour of surprising dance.
One of Dorrance’s innovations as a young choreographer on the downtown scene, a decade ago, was demonstrating that rhythmic dancing doesn’t have to be loud. She picks up that baton again in A Little Room, a short duet with Ephrat Asherie, B-girl and longtime Dorrance associate: four minutes and change of soft-shoe shuffling in a tiny rectangle of brightness, the pair wearing snug, masculine suits, to an original score by Michelle’s brother, Donovan Dorrance. Kathy Kaufmann’s lights flash on and off, and suddenly it’s over, leaving a whiff of Laurel and Hardy, a little trip down memory lane, in the air.
After a 20-minute intermission, required to set the stage for the live jazz combo led by vocalist/composer Aaron Marcellus, the band and a sextet of Dorrance’s dancers take the floor. Named for the Manhattan intersection nearest to where the two artists first met (Marcellus, a student in Dorrance’s tap class, attracted her attention with his evident musicality), 45th & 8th presents five sublime movers and diva Dorrance herself in a combination of set choreography and improvisation to the blending sounds of the fine musicians. Marcellus leads on keys and wields an electronic controller that messes with his vocal sounds as he produces them, scatting rather than voicing coherent words. The black-clad dancers slip and slide on their elevated, floor, enhanced with a cut-out “gobo” filter displaying a geometric lighting design. The leggy choreographer herself, in fishnets, limns a mellow solo. Brazilian dancer Leonardo Sandoval, long and lean and sporting locks that move in counterpoint to his flexible skeleton, is a special treat in this ardent troupe.
Tap dancers are famously known for getting down, but this crew demonstrates a talent for taking off, letting us see that under the right conditions, tap can fly. In a lively talkback after the show, Dorrance referred to her dancers as “an apocalyptic flock of birds,” and that startling effect was what I was seeing: tappers practically ice-skating, taking the air instead of “hitting,” digging into the floor. About his own music, Marcellus declared, “It’s not supposed to make sense; it’s supposed to feel good.” That’s also true of the whole performance, which exists on a plane primarily of sensuality and feeling. The dancers float; the musicians lead, follow, and lift them; and the rapt audience continues screaming its approval as the curtain falls. ❖`
Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.