Review: Stepping out with Dorrance Dance

Jungle Blues is one of three pieces presented by Dorrance Dance. Photo: Dana Lynn Pleasant

You couldn’t ask for a better way to celebrate Leap Day than with the exuberant extra-ness of New York City’s Dorrance Dance. Founded in 2011 by tap phenom Michelle Dorrance, the ensemble quickly gained international acclaim thanks to Dorrance’s adventurous choreography — a heady, ever-evolving mix of traditional tap with contemporary, breakdancing and other styles.

Saturday night’s triple bill at the NAC somehow packed a full evening’s worth of dance into one hour. The curtain rose on Jungle Blues, a 2012 work that feels like stumbling into the middle of a debauched night at a Crescent City speakeasy, right down to the flask of hooch being passed around. Set to the Branford Marsalis Quartet’s wailing New Orleans jazz, this short work alternates flirtatious duets with solo and ensemble work.

A scene from Myelination. Photo: Dana Lynn Pleasant

Right off the bat we’re introduced to each dancer’s staggering virtuosity and versatility, as well as their distinct personalities. Warren Craft, for example, contrasts incredibly precise footwork with a gangly upper body, often looking like one of those cartoon characters who steps into a pair of enchanted shoes with a will of their own. Byron Tittle and Ephrat ‘Bounce’ Asherie punctuate their blistering solos with headstands, cossack squats and other impressive athletics, while Leonardo Sandoval, with his loose-limbed, graceful style and sunny countenance, is more of a throwback to the classic hoofers of old.

Dorrance herself had been scheduled to perform, but a last-minute scheduling conflict kept her in New York. The electrifying Elizabeth Burke took her place in Three to One, from 2011. It’s another short but eventful work, set to a whirring, clickety clockwork score by Richard D. James. When it starts, only the dancers legs are visible, up to their knees. Burke wears tap shoes, flanked by Tittle and Matthew ‘Megawatt’ West in bare feet. Eventually they are revealed in full, all wearing identical, androgynous black tube tops and shorts.  In the first section, the three go through their motions like mechanical creatures, facing the audience full on. Eventually the wind-up repetition starts breaking down; the two men leave the stage and Burke erupts into a ferocious, almost desperate solo. The stage goes black but her eloquent tapping can still be heard, like a declaration of emancipation.

Myelination was the longest and most ambitious work on the program. Dorrance originally created it in 2015, revising it in 2017. It’s danced to a live jazz score composed and performed by Dorrance’s brother, Donovan, and two other musicians. Two of the dancers later join the band, playing electric guitar and drums (is there anything these dancers can’t do well?).

In Myelination — the word refers to the process of nerves growing protective sheaths that allow signals to travel faster — Dorrance further develops the fusing of various forms of vernacular American dance. There are extensive breakdance-influenced floor solos for Asherie, who plays a kind of central figure in the loose and very abstract narrative framework.

Costumed in shades of grey and black, all 11 dancers push their technical and expressive boundaries in improvised solos and conversational — sometimes confrontational — duets. The full ensemble work is a marvel of infinite rhythmic variations. There are microphones placed along the front of the stage at foot level to capture every nuance, and the clarity and complexity of the tapping becomes a transcendent language, reminding me of Indian tabla drumming and bols, the spoken rhythmic mnemonics used in kathak.

While Myelination has serious and even dark moments, it ends like the evening began, in joy and camaraderie. When the feeling spreads to the audience, it feels natural, not contrived: everyone’s welcome in Dorrance’s rhythm nation.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.