Saturday, October 28, 2017

Dorrance Dance

Cal Performances presents
Photo Christopher Duggan
Dorrance Dance
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
Oct 27th, 2017

The lesson from last night’s Dorrance Dance show at Cal Performances? Tap and the concert stage need to meet more often in the Bay Area. It was such a great evening – one of movement, of sound, of energy, of stunning musicianship. And percussive dance fans were not going to miss this opportunity. They packed into Zellerbach Hall to see the phenomenal artists of Dorrance Dance, led by Artistic Director Michelle Dorrance, in a one-night triple bill performance: 2012’s Jungle Blues, 2011’s Three to One and the Bay Area premiere of Myelination, which was co-commissioned by Cal Performances.

A crowd-pleasing romp, Jungle Blues’ slinky, stylized choreography was set amidst a smoke-filled stage. With retro costumes (by Amy Page), it looked like the company could have been dancing the night away in a 1940s bar, hip flasks even making the occasional appearance. Soloists would emerge from the collective with clever, dynamic phrases that married old-school tap steps and present-day rhythmic sensibilities: cramp rolls, wings, grab offs, multi-beat riffs and riffles, toe stands and a series of super fast single backwalks. The sound balance was a little off at first, but by the middle of the piece, had reached a perfect equilibrium.

After a brief pause, Dorrance, Byron Tittle and Matthew “Megawatt” West took the stage for Three to One, a trio infused with a whisper of contemporary dance. At first, the three contained their choreography to a large rectangular pool of light center stage (design by Kathy Kaufmann), in which heel and toe articulation reigned supreme. Swivels, clicks, beats and digs increased in tempo and in intensity, intimating something more, perhaps even a narrative of panic and frenetic energy. And following the dance’s name, Tittle and West exited the space leaving Dorrance alone, her pulsing paddle rolls eventually taking her out of the light and into the darkness.

Concluding the program was Myelination, a full ensemble experience, complete with live musical collaboration. Starting with a trio in front of the curtain, heel and toe directions once more set the scene, but this time, it was street dance that was in conversation with tap throughout the work. And just like Three to One, the composition was true to its title. Movement jumped from one place to another just like saltatory propagation along myelinated fibers. Large unison sequences morphed into smaller groupings and then to solos that were either structured improvisations or completely improvised. The opening and middle unison statements were both visually gorgeous and audibly exciting – a sliding floorwork motif and varied partnering were incorporated as percussive elements, intricate syncopation rang through the space and again, some classic stomp time steps took you back. And the group finale was so powerful with dynamics ranging from pianissimo to sforzando and cannoned patterns, all performed so miraculously by these amazing dancers and musicians.

Though for me, Myelination lost its way in the middle when it turned to a lengthy series of improvisations. Don’t get me wrong, the improv skills were impressive, improv is certainly an integral part of percussive dance traditions and improvising on stage must be acknowledged as a vulnerable and risky act. But as I watched the solos/duets unfolding on stage, I was struck by familiar questions.  How do we understand something so open and free when it is placed into a set performative container? Does the viewership lens change? Is improvisation a process, a result, both or neither?

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