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BWW Review: DORRANCE DANCE at The Kennedy Center

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Dorrance’s Kennedy Center performance is a celebration divided into four parts.

If the idea of tap dance makes you think of stale musicals from the early 20th century, Michelle Dorrance is eager to shatter your assumptions. Her NYC-based company Dorrance Dance performed two shows at the Kennedy Center this weekend, and their work is inspired by a history of tap dance stretching back before the jazz age and into contemporary dance traditions from breakdancing to lyrical hip hop. In a program note on Dorrance Dance's website, Dorrance writes, "No dancers call upon specific individual influences of so many of their masters and their form's innovators (our ancestors, if you will) more directly and more often than tap dancers." The ancestors of tap dance and their growing family of successors shared the spotlight and a heartening measure of holiday cheer at Dorrance Dance's Kennedy Center show.

Dorrance Dance is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and its shows have been enjoyed by audiences around the world and honored with awards and accolades that are too numerous to count. In addition to creating dazzling tap performances, the company is intensely focused on engaging communities on the history and legacy of tap dancing as a Black American art form. This includes leading lecture demonstrations, touring workshops, school performances, and initiatives to bring dance education programs to public schools.

Dorrance's Kennedy Center performance was not a history lesson but a celebration divided into four parts. The first of this quartet was a 2013 piece called "SOUNDspace," which according to Dorrance Dance was "[o]riginally a site-specific work that explored the unique acoustics of New York City's St. Mark's Church through the myriad sounds and textures of the feet." Since its premiere in 2013, "SOUNDspace" has been adapted for different settings but remains an homage to the history and legacy of tap dancing. "SOUNDspace" includes both choreography by Michelle Dorrance and solo improvisation by the dancers, and it explores a range of ways for the body to serve as a uniquely capable percussive instrument.

The piece begins with a trio of dancers on three platforms across the stage, their taps amplified by specially placed microphones. This transitions to a downstage quartet, then a duet, then a solo. The transitions between these pieces were sometimes graceful and sometimes silly, and it was wonderfully satisfying to see the whole company come together in unison or melt away to leave just one or two dancers on stage. One solo in "SOUNDspace" included the gentle tapping of socked feet punctuated by claps, leg slaps, chest drums, and even vocalized "whoop"s. This was a visual treat but also an auditory masterpiece: "SOUNDspace" is as much a musical composition as it is a work of choreography. By the end of the piece, it feels as though you've concluded a journey not just through the history of an art form but through the human body's ability to make music in clever, sometimes funny, often surprising ways.

The next piece in the series called "Three to One" was much shorter than "SOUNDspace," clocking in at under 8 minutes. Starting with Michelle Dorrance positioned center stage framed by two dancers, and concluding as a solo piece, "Three to One" features haunting songs by Richard D. James/Aphex Twin and Thom Yorke of Radiohead fame. The way the piece plays with unsynchronized, puppet-like movements feels almost Beckettian, and Dorrance's skillful manipulation of light during the piece's final moments were some of the most striking images of the performance.

Next was "Basses Loaded," a piece originally commissioned by New York City Center and performed by four tap dancers and four bassists (two double and two electric), all of whom get their chance to dance. The music for "Basses Loaded" was co-written by Michelle Dorrance's brother, Donovan Dorrance, and both Dorrances play the electric basses for this piece. Like "SOUNDspace," "Basses Loaded" also includes solo improvisation by the dancers. However, this piece felt more explicitly narrative than the others, as the circling basses surrounded dancers in moments of controlled desperation. The elegant and expressive solo by Dorrance Dance co-dance captain Elizabeth Burke was one of the highlights of the evening.

BWW Review: DORRANCE DANCE at The Kennedy Center
Members of the Dorrance Dance company perform "Basses Loaded." Photo by Stephanie Berger.

The final section of the program took a sharp turn back to the joy of "SOUNDspace," but this time with a festive twist: Dorrance Dance resident vocalist Aaron Marcellus led an irresistibly hummable medley of Ella Fitzgerald's holiday songbook for the company's finale. Marcellus' infectious energy and stellar vocal chops in this world premiere performance of "An Ella'quent Holiday Swing" provided a sparkling homage to Ella's classics, and the dancers' ear-to-ear smiles throughout felt completely genuine. An especially charming standout of the piece was the company's rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which included one of the dancers adorned with a red cloth facemask as Rudolph and others wearing brown gloves with their hands styled as antlers.

Dorrance Dance notes on their website that "tap dance is a subversive form." The radical delight, playfulness, and palpable trust between the members of the Dorrance Dance company feels beautifully subversive in another holiday season of covid anxiety, distancing, and skepticism. What better time, then, for Dorrance Dance to share tap dancing with the next generation and celebrate its legacy of resilience and joy in the face of adversity.

Running time: 90 minutes

Dorrance Dance is performing at the Kennedy Center on December 3rd & 4th, 2021. Tickets are between $29 and $99, and information about the Kennedy Center's Covid-19 requirements can be found here.


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