Sunday, December 18, 2016

Tap talks back: Jane Goldberg responds to Acocella review

Tap dancer and writer Jane Goldberg
(photo courtesy of the artist)

InfiniteBody welcomes tap's great champion Jane Goldberg for her response to a review of Dorrance Dance in The New Yorker by critic Joan Acocella.

Joan Acocella’s December 5 review of Dorrance Dance (click here) offers up an unfortunate contradiction. After a generally complimentary review of the company’s recent season at The Joyce Theater, Acocella ends with the complaint that Michelle Dorrance choreographed only four full-length shows between 2013-2014 (only? really?) and hasn’t created enough new work. She points to Dorrance’s busy schedule as a dancer to explain this supposed deficit. She concludes, “Dorrance doesn’t look tired, but chances are she will, and so will her work, if she doesn’t sit down for a while.” Despite her evident love of dance, as a critic, Acocella either has no interest, or little, if any, understanding of what it means to be living the dance life. As someone who is both a dancer and a writer, I do.

We dancers need to make a living. This is a constant struggle, particularly for tap dancers. It is relevant that Michelle Dorrance, more than anyone, has employed more tap dancers of varying styles, as far as I can remember (and my memory is long). Dorrance does a lot of other choreography besides Dorrance Dance, and maintains this company with a seeming core, that changes often, and usually employs the talents of as many dancers as can deliver her complex and challenging work. Her full-length shows, featuring these dancers, require rehearsals and refreshing so that the shows are in tip-top shape when they arrive at the next venue. No doubt Acocella has seen the same Balanchine and Baryshnikov dances a zillion times.   If she loved tap dancing more she might not have practically rattled the death of tap after reviewing Brian Seibert’s tap history book. Acocella might get bored with only four shows in two years, but I saw The Blues Project three times and it just got deeper for me, with things I hadn’t noticed before, the way one discovers newness in a painting or in any of the lively arts.

Michelle Dorrance at Writing on Tap workshop (2012) above
and below with tap colleagues Derick K. Grant and Brenda Bufalino
(photos: Eva Yaa Asantewaa)

Dorrance’s work is diverse, collaborative, and far-reaching (amazing kathak/tap work; an interpretation of Martha Graham’s Lamentation; to name just two of many). Moreover, what is wrong with accepting every offer she gets while she’s “hot?”  Tap dancers don’t get the kind of venues ballet and even modern dancers get. We need to capitalize on offers when they arrive. Jacob’s Pillow certainly isn’t tired of Dorrance’s work, having hired her three years in a row, with two of the years presenting versions of the same work. The Blues Project when first presented at the Joyce lasted just a few nights – and it sold out. Because it is such a good piece, why not have it again and benefit both the 475- seat dance theater, as well as a blossoming choreographer and tap company? Consistent touring, which Acocella also complains about, gives Dorrance more access to more audiences, who might be inspired to go see more dance, enlarging the entire dance field. And, of course, frequent performing, usually a high, joyful, fulfilling, and giving experience for choreographer/dancers, keeps dancers working!
Dorrance is known for her generosity towards her dancers, paying them well and even before paying herself. She is also consistently generous in her recognition of her mentors and collaborators. If Acocella had seen Dorrance more than a couple of times, she would know that Dorrance has credited her North Carolina teacher Gene Medler in almost every panel discussion, concert program or public talk in which she was involved (including her recent appearance on Stephen Colbert). In the world of dance, rarely do I see anyone like Michelle Dorrance, who consistently goes back to her roots, to profusely credit others, and to celebrate her own good fortune. And her attributions are not done for reasons involving race, as Acocella implies. Her dancers are a diverse group brought together because they have the feet and attitude Dorrance clearly admires. In a world of schadenfreude, it is telling that I have heard no envious talk about Dorrance winning the prized MacArthur Genius Award. Only delight and pride from her fellow tappers.
--Jane Goldberg

Jane Goldberg
(photo: Jamie Laworitz Sherman)

Jane Goldberg is a “rara avis”: a dancer who is also a writer. She has been one of the most prolific voices in the field of tap dancing for the past three decades.

In 1972, after graduating as a political science major from Boston University, she saw the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and was soon studying tap dancing. She began ferreting out many of the remaining entertainment greats of the 20th century. She became good friends with the late Gregory Hines, the actor/singer/tap dancer, as well as his chronicler.

By the 1980s, Goldberg had apprenticed herself to many of the old hoofers, while at the same time, interviewing and documenting their work. These classic jazz men were at the time living virtually “underground,” considered practitioners of a “dying,” or at best, “lost” art form. At least, that was the official lore Goldberg heard about this uniquely American art.

Determined to prove the two myths wrong, Goldberg began teaching and was only a few steps ahead of her students in her Bleecker Street basement. The experimental choreographer/singer/writer, Meredith Monk, was in her first class, and Monk sent many apostate modern dancers Goldberg’s way. Tap’s universal appeal attracted Japanese scholars, doctors, lawyers and “closet hoofers” to Goldberg’s underground quarters as well. She employed her newly developed “talking feet”, to pass down great steps and secret recipes from the originators.

As artistic director of Changing Times Tap, a non-profit preservation, promotion, and performing entity, begun in 1979, Goldberg began teaching at New York University, and giving workshops and master classes to college and serious dance students. Her company produced the first international festival, By Word of Foot in 1980, at the renowned NYC Village Gate. Her acclaimed memoir, “Shoot Me While I’m Happy: Memories from the Tap Goddess of The Lower East Side” with introduction by Gregory Hines, comes with a bonus DVD which highlights this celebration of teaching.

Some of her archives reside at The New York Public Library’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, as part of the Gregory Hines Collection. Her personal archives, “Jane Goldberg’s Wandering Shoes, Tap (h) istory, Tip Top Tapes, Tapalogues, Tapology and Tapperabilia” is living testament to the future of tap.

Known as “the hoofer with angst”, Goldberg has performed her comedy/tap act, Rhythm & Schmooze, "topical tap with running commentary over the feet,” in countless jazz, contemporary, and experimental venues throughout The United States, such as The Village Vanguard in NYC, The Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and Harvard University in Boston. She is the recipient of two Fulbright Scholarships to India where she performed her highly idiosyncratic program throughout the subcontinent.

A Washington D.C. native, Goldberg spent her formative years as an investigative reporter and studying modern dance in D.C., Maryland, and Boston. She lives with the painter Owen Gray in New York City.
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