Dorrance Dance, headed by Chapel Hill native Michelle Dorrance, brought down the house on Sept. 25th at the University of North Carolina’s Memorial Hall with The Blues Project, a 60-minute work created by Dorrance, co-choreographers Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and blues musician/composer Toshi Reagon.
Presented as part of the Carolina Performing Arts series, The Blues Project premiered in 2013 at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. It features 10 dancers and five musicians (Toshi Reagon’s spectacular band, BIGLovely); or, perhaps, I should say 15 musicians, because the artists of Dorrance Dance are, without a doubt, master musicians, each with his or her own unique style and personality — which makes for a varied yet harmonious blend of “voices” onstage.
The tap to which I was exposed as a young dancer was not particularly exciting: straight lines of dancers in sparkly costumes and big grins, doing time steps and shuffle-off-to-Buffalos. Such tap dancing was mere time-keeping, metronome work. When I first saw Gregory Hines, and then Savion Glover, then others like them, it was a revelation. Here was finesse, nuance, layers, and colors. Here was conversation; here was music. Here was tap dancing with something to say.
The Blues Project had something to say, cycling through many moods and styles in the space of an hour. It revealed relationships between African dance and tap, swing dancing and tap, street dancing and tap. Rousing group sections, with a mixture of layered rhythms and unison tapping, alternated with multilayered improvisational solo work; and yet an ensemble feeling was present throughout the evening.
Michelle Dorrance (who is the recipient of a Bessie Award, a Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, and the first tap dancer to receive a Princess Grace Award for Choreography) amazes in her solo, combining deftly honed delicacy with take that! power, simple walking rhythms alternating with complex sequences that make us do auditory double-takes. Her tapping is casual and easy, light and airy, yet solid and grounded, with deep, wide second position pliés encasing subtle heel drops and rhythmic winks. It’s also teasing, flirty,sexy — in a playful, well-of-course sort of way.
Jason Samuels Smith’s solo had a bare, exposed elegance; he is a thoroughbred in full control of his considerable strength. Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards’ tapping was impossibly fast and fluttery, then emphatic and sassy, confident and sensual.
Although I liked the group work in The Blues Project, I enjoyed the solo work best, for here we saw most clearly the interplay between dancer and musician. I’ve always loved the connection between tappers and the musicians who play with them — not for them, but with them, because with tappers and musicians, it’s not a case of dancer and accompanist; it’s a true collaboration. Dorrance might have been dancing and Reagon might have been singing, but their performance was a duet in every sense of the word.
With Smith, the conversation that goes on between fellow musicians who are improvising, playing off each other’s “words” and “phrases,” was even more evident — Smith wasn’t catching his breath in those spaces between tap riffs; he was listening. Sumbry-Edwards’ riffs expanded on and highlighted sections in the music, as she bounced on her toes like a boxer in the ring, ready for anything, ready to respond to what the music was saying.
And the music said a lot. Toshi Reagon was the sole vocalist of the evening, and nothing else was needed. Her voice was by turns sweet and lovely and raw and growly — and it was made all the richer by her expertise on acoustic guitar. Her fellow BIGLovely musicians — Fred Cash on electric bass, Juliette Jones on violin, Alison Miller on drums/percussion, and Adam Widoff on electric guitar — were equally fluent on their own instruments. Juliette Jones did some wonderful down-home fiddling on a group number with the dancers; and Miller laid down a jaw-dropping drum solo, the likes of which I haven’t heard in a very long time.
Additional credits for The Blues Project go to dancer Karida Griffith for providing additional African choreography, Andrew Jordan for costume design, and Kathy Kaufman for lighting design.
The Blues Project is a great evening of music and dance, and the hometown crowd was enthusiastic in its support of its native daughter. Luckily, Dorrance maintains a close connection with her Chapel Hill roots, so it’s likely she’ll be back soon. I certainly hope so.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 24th Durham, NC Indy Week preview by Kate Dobbs Ariail http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/acclaimed-tap-dancer-michelle-dorrance-brings-the-blues-back-to-chapel-hill/Content?oid=4254498.
Carolina Performing Arts presents Dorrance Dance in THE BLUES PROJECT at 8 p.m. Sept. 26 in Memorial Hall, 114 E. Cameron Ave., Chapel Hill, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
TICKETS: $10 and up ($10 and up UNC students).
BOX OFFICE: 919-843-3333 or https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/events-on-sale/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: http://vimeo.com/94453682.
PRESENTER: https://www.carolinaperformingarts.org/, https://www.facebook.com/pages/Carolina-Performing-Arts/9560250967, and .
Dorrance Dance (Brooklyn NY-based dance company): http://www.dorrancedance.com/ (official website) and https://www.facebook.com/pages/Michelle-Dorrance-Dorrance-Dance/304335686271615 (Facebook page).
Michelle Dorrance (Brooklyn NY and Chapel Hill NC dancer, teacher, and choreographer): http://www.michelledorrance.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/pages/Michelle-Dorrance-Dorrance-Dance/304335686271615 (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/mashdeez (Twitter page), and http://www.youtube.com/user/mashdeez”>http://www.youtube.com/user/mashdeez (YouTube page).
Viki Atkinson danced professionally in musical theater for a number of years and later shifted her focus to choreographing for theater. Locally, she danced in the North Carolina Theatre productions of Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Additional performance credits include Kathy in Company, Peggy in Godspell, and the title role in Gypsy. Later, Atkinson lent her dance expertise to Spectator Magazine, serving as chief dance critic from 1987 to 1999. She also holds a degree in Dance Education from UNC-Greensboro; and she has taught extensively in a variety of settings, including Meredith College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (Petersburg, VA), and the School of Richmond Ballet. She was also on the faculty of the Raleigh School of Ballet for 10 years and directed the dance program at Martin Middle School for four years. Viki Atkinson recently returned to Raleigh after living in Richmond for six years, and is thrilled to be back in North Carolina! To read more of Viki Atkinson’s Triangle Review reviews, click here. To read more of her CVNC reviews, click here.