On Tap

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday November 1, 2017
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I kept thinking of Joni Mitchell's song about the street musician who was "playing real good, for free" as I watched Michelle Dorrance's tap dancers last Friday night at Zellerbach Hall. All her material comes to us originally from dancing on street-corners. And they were all making music with their bodies, music you could hear and sometimes see.

MacArthur Fellow (the "genius" award) Dorrance is famous for opening up tap to other forms. While Savion Glover revived tap by making it explicitly aggressive, explosive and athletic with "Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk" 20 years ago, Dorrance is celebrated for bringing in hip-hop, b-boying and b-girling, and integrating great virtuosi in these forms into her dances, crediting dancers Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie and Matthew "Megawatt" for their contributions to the choreography.

There was no intermission. There were three pieces. First, "Jungle Blues," to the Branford Marsalis Quartet's recording, introduced the group to a slow, bluesy raunch, with a glorious effect where the stage seemed to be rotating, bringing the dancers round as if this were Busby Berkeley in slow motion. Second, a trio to music that sounded otherworldly, like the Harry Potter theme music, celesta-floaty, with heeby-jeeby action for the legs that became seriously disturbing after the two guys bookending Dorrance herself disappeared from the stage and the music began to sound like you were having an epileptic seizure. The nervous energy got scarier than I had bargained for.

"Myelination," the much longer piece that followed, was co-commissioned by Cal Performances, and had live musicians behind a scrim backing up the rest of the evening. It was highly episodic, rather like contemporary jazz music, and indeed the highly knowledgeable audience applauded sections as a jazz audience will a soloist who takes you on a great flight of fancy.

Tap had a great heyday in the 1920s & 30s, but it was made up of short numbers. The musical-comedy format gave it a chance to shine like jewels in the midst of a larger theatrical context. But an evening of all-tap is a little wearing, since the variety-show format has to be handled wisely, or else it feels like a grab-bag. Tap has never evolved a system for organizing itself into a large-scale form. This is a problem facing hip-hop, turfing, all the wonderful idioms that dancers love, but which find it hard to make the transition to being a spectator sport. How do you dispose the action to suit an audience in a theater? Despite the fact that all the dancing was wonderful, the show was too long, and one thing did not lead to another. They tried to make continuity and nearly made it, but not really. On the other hand, what wonderful stuff, so knowledgeable, so steeped in the music, and so responsive to the possibilities of fantasy that the music sets up.

Dorrance's 10 performers are all brilliant, though it's the diversity that you notice first thing: all body types, different signature moves, sometimes bare of foot or shod without taps. Most of all, some of them are nervous wrecks, and others calmed down to the near-comatose.

She's smuggled a lot of Expressionist dance, both the contortions and the Angstvoll tropes, into her work. Press materials did not help identify dancers, so I can't name performers who especially charmed. But one, whom I'll call "Cesare" because he called to mind the zombie from the coffin in the great German expressionist movie "The Cabinet of Caligari," had a haunting way of tangling his legs and falling over backwards as if in slow motion, then rising back out of it as this were all on the ocean floor and mysterious currents were floating him around. Another, I'll call "Running Man" because he kept hitting this pose and holding it with blinding stillness for a split-second, ratcheting it off-kilter, then holding that as if this were stop-action camerawork, which he must have done 10 times over and burned that image on my retina. I will never forget it. But the show, I wish I could see it again, because I don't really know what hit me.

The dancers all deserve high praise: Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie, Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Warren Craft, Michelle Dorrance, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Byron Tittle, Matthew "Megawatt" West, Gabriel Winns Ortiz, and Nicholas Van Young.