Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Where the blues brings joy: Dorrance and Reagon at the Schomburg

Tap maverick Michelle Dorrance
in The Blues Project, a collaboration
with singer-composer Toshi Reagon (rear, right),
curator of the Schomburg's Women's Jazz Festival

The Women's Jazz Festival, now in its 21st annual presentation by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, got off to an exciting start with the New York premiere of The Blues Project in the sold-out Langston Hughes Auditorium. Given its world premiere last summer at the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the production is the marriage of two top-notch artistic entities--Dorrance Dance, the tap ensemble led by Bessie-winning choreographer Michelle Dorrance, and Toshi Reagon's marvelous band, BIGLovely. And if that's not enough, how about Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards adding their choreography and star-power?

Dorrance Dance in action
Up front: Elizabeth Burke (l) and Nicholas Van Young
Far left: Derick K. Grant
Center: Christopher Broughton
(photo: Bob Gore)
L-r: Claudia Rahardjanoto, Michelle Dorrance,
Demi Remick, Elizabeth Burke
and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards
(photo: Bob Gore)

The Blues Project opens with the steady BOOM-THUMP, BOOM-THUMP of Allison Miller's drumming. Dancers--dressed as if for a summery country romp--first creep out from the wings then quickly unpack Dorrance's signature moves: loose-limbed, broad, pelting, the entire body activated and engaged in addressing space. They charge and skim and gobble the stage in just a few happy bites. It's a distinctly American, idealistically American look and feel--indomitable, optimistic, on the upswing and culturally integrated--and one that Reagon's BIGLovely supports throughout the hour-long show with its own buoyant eclecticism, from blues to bluegrass, from swing and rockabilly to hard rock. The tightly edited hour--each cleanly-arranged number following close upon its predecessor--never strains a viewer's interest.

Some dancemakers go astray in their effort to prove that tap is respectably choreographic, not just improvisatory. Dorrance, though, demonstrates that she can more than handle the challenge of fielding a big, purposeful group in space and making an ensemble look intricately sharp and never, never ever cornball. No matter what era of dance or music she drops into, she and her talented and disciplined dancers come up with a vitalizing response, as do Reagon and her musicians. I might wish for fewer ensemble moments in The Blues Project--that's just me, folks--but the thrilling solos eventually balance things out, and then some.

Grant's solo is a model of workmanship of the feet akin to fine brushstrokes in the painting of a master, strokes that make you lean forward to look and gasp. His technique is breathtaking. Sumbry-Edwards brings authority and, yet continuous surprise, concentrating hard as if dance is a most solemn duty, and that's because it is. She renders herself transparent so that history flows through her. Her solo is--I'll just say it this way--populated. Reagon's spiritual, soulful "There and Back Again" (2010) lays out the mesh that Dorrance's solo will embroider in her deep-listening, thoughtful way, one of the most inspired and inspiring pieces I've ever seen her dance. This youthful dancer and choreographer truly represents tap's historic and enduring through line and signals its potential.

Dorrance Dance: Megan Bartula, Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Michelle Dorrance, Eboni Edwards, Derick K. Grant, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Demi Remick, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Caleb Teicher, Byron Tittle, Nicholas Van Young, Ali Dietz

BIGLovely: Toshi Reagon (vocals, acoustic guitar), Adam Widoff (electric guitar), Ganessa James (electric bass), Juliette Jones (violin), Allison Miller (drums and percussion)

For information on upcoming Women's Jazz Festival events, now through March 31 at the Schomburg, click here. Hurry! Tickets go fast!

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Blvd, Manhattan

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