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Michelle Dorrance, founder and artistic director of Dorrance Dance and recent recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, has been called “one of the most imaginative tap choreographers working today” (The New Yorker). I hoped to get some insider perspective on rhythm tap and percussion when I went to her company’s performance of The Blues Project at Northrop Auditorium, so I asked Rick Ausland, the co-founder of Minneapolis-based dance and music company Buckets and Tap Shoes, to join me. Rick has performed, taught and choreographed throughout the world, and was nominated for a 2013 SAGE Award for “Outstanding Performer.”

 

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Alejandra Iannone, { Dd }: So, if you were going to describe The Blues Project in a word, what would it be?

Rick Ausland: Skillful? People might default to saying “It was so energetic!” or that kind of thing. I don’t feel that way. People definitely had high energy throughout the show. It seemed like they were enjoying what they were doing. I think a handful of the best tap dancers in the world were on stage. It wasn’t an explosion of energy though. Was it skillfully done? Yes. Did it blow my mind? No, it didn’t. Do I love Dormeshia? Yes! And Derick. And Michelle. And Nick. Those were the four people I was familiar with going in. The other performers I wasn’t familiar with. Some of them impressed me.  Some…

 

 

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

AI: Did you feel the cast wasn’t evenly matched?

RA: Not across the board, at least when it came to skill level. I mean, it would be hard to have a whole company of Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards—to find people like that and to have funding to put a show like that on tour.

AI: I don’t want to use the word simple because I don’t think what they were doing was simple. I’m not a tap dancer but I assume, given the caliber of dancer that was onstage, that the movements were complex. The look of it though…maybe stark is a good word? That was partly because of the costumes.

RA: Yeah, the costumes have come up in conversation few times since the show. They wore the same costume for the whole 75-minute program. Wearing that same outfit the whole time brought up some questions. Why a vest with no shirt and dress pants for the men? Why skirts for the women? How did that connect to what was going on onstage?

AI: Yeah, I wasn’t sure what the costume concept was. It seems trivial, but the costuming made it hard for me to interpret the relationships between people onstage and between the dances numbers that occurred.

RA: Why keep the same costume on for 75 minutes? The dancers didn’t look bad or anything, but you and I both wondered if the whole show was supposed to be taken as one piece.

AI: I don’t think the taller, more muscular male dancers’ body type was considered in their costumes’ design. The cut of the pants and length of the vests made it look like the clothing was ill-fitting.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

RA: I’m not trying to be snooty about the costuming, but it obviously wasn’t the creative team’s main concern. And when you present dance in a concert format, people expect a certain level of production value.

AI: I don’t usually think about costumes this much. It’s like we’re stuck on the costume thing! But the creative team thought through these design choices and I don’t understand their reasoning.

RA: A lot of tap dancers might say to us, “You’re focusing on the visual aspect of this, you’re watching it.” In the past, tap dancers have taken issue with that approach, many have wanted people to listen to, rather than only watch, what they have to say with their feet.

AI: It seems obvious that we would be concerned with how the dance looked for a couple of reasons. It’s not just about the sound with Michelle Dorrance’s movement. There are a lot of dramatic shifts in level, usually by crouching, falling, or jumping.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

RA: I appreciated the way they moved around the stage as well, the way they created formations. There were 9 dancers and they moved around a lot, making formations you don’t see often in tap, nowadays at least. There’s usually quite a bit of standing in a staggered line.

AI: I appreciated that there was something to notice from our balcony seats. but sometimes the formations didn’t work for me. The structure of the shapes and the way the dancers moved into them were often sloppy. Also, probably because I’m not a tapper, I found it challenging to keep engaged, to relate, pick up on nuance. They had floor microphones upstage and downstage, but there were occasional sound balance issues, and without hearing the shoes on the floor, the movement looked like much of the same to me.

RA: I wonder why this is being presented in a large concert hall instead of a smaller space. Sometimes the experience for the audience is richer when they are close to the dance…especially if the artists want the audience to really listen to and notice what’s happening.

AI: I thought the stage was well suited for the ensemble sections, but the size of the stage did seem to affect the impact of the soloist performers. I found myself wondering, “How does a tap dancer project without just making louder sounds or going closer to a microphone? Is there more to project than just sound?”

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

RA: And how do they project when they are working with live musicians? Sometimes the musical selections distracted from the dance, and other times I wasn’t sure whether to direct my attention to a song’s lyrics or the rhythm communicated by the dancers.

AI: But, I definitely liked the band.

RA: They were all talented. If you pick a good band, it’s going to be just fine. The energy of a live band capitalized on the improvisational nature of tap and blues music.

But, there could have been a little more interplay between the artists and the band.

Oftentimes, tap dancers will communicate with musicians and do a stop time trade. There was a moment when the violinist came down to the space where the dancers were, but it didn’t feel as though they were trading off or anything.

AI: The dancers were looking at the violinist, though, and moving in relationship to her.

RA: And there was a moment when Michelle improvised with the Toshi Reagon. But, there could have been more.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

AI: I think this show would have been stronger had the choreography not simply touched on profound, sometimes heavy, ideas, and then zipped away into a swing, hip-hop, or upbeat group number. Instead, why not invest time in expanding upon the complex elements?

RA: That kind of shift seemed to happen after each solo. Everything got…

AI: Happy.

RA: And washed the previous moment away. Those moments seemed like throwaways.

AI: I think what they were trying to do, in the swing, hip hop, and and other moments throughout the night, was call people’s attention to the way tap dance relates to other dance forms. But, they distracted us from the history of tap that The Blues Project hinted at. It’s a story that’s messy and uncomfortable. People don’t want to, or don’t know how to talk about it.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

RA: Rhythm is all around the world. Everyone has got a heartbeat. But the type of tap I know, that I do, has roots in African drumming culture and Irish step dancing. The form is a blend of the African and Irish ideas. None of this information is new. Similar ideas have been presented onstage well before The Blues Project, at least when it comes to the history of the art form.

AI: And a Google search will show you that tap dance has roots in forced and non-forced immigration by populations that have been and still are marginalized in the U.S.A.

 

 

RA: But, people associate tap with Broadway, Hollywood. There’s still a degree of excellence in that kind of tap, you can’t say that Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were nothing. Still…

AI: Tap was whitewashed.

RA: Sugarcoated, whitewashed…tap became a smiley face, kick line, big arms kind of a thing. Even, nowadays tap dancers aren’t always taken as seriously. Meanwhile, they have something very soulful, very deep. I want to clarify that The Blues Project didn’t feel whitewashed. It showed respect for the history of the art form. Sure the artistic director is a Caucasian woman. But, she has a respect for where tap dance came from and she knows what she’s doing. Still, the show didn’t quite feel like it was pushing boundaries.

AI: It seemed to me that the show was constructed as one would a band’s set list. And I wonder, then, why was it presented in that particular order? Was this analogous to concept album? When I spoke to the Northrop press contact, she made a point of asking me, “Are you going to come to the talk beforehand?” I wasn’t able to make it but, apparently, in the pre-show talk, Dorrance explained that the show was a collection of separate numbers: improvised solos, a funk number, a lindy hop/hip hop number. It seems to me that if one didn’t go to that pre-show talk….

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

RA: One shouldn’t have to go to a talk. It’s nice for artists to offer them, but one shouldn’t have to go to a pre-performance talk to understand what is going on onstage. That would have been great information to breakdown in the program. Of course, doing that would limit flexibility when it comes to show order, and tap dancers love to improvise. We’ve run into the same thing with Buckets and Tap Shoes. There’s times we’ve listed things out in a program, times that we haven’t and didn’t understand why that would be so important to an audience, thought they should just sit back and watch it. Here I go with a should-ism, but The Blues Project showed me that in a theatrical setting, especially in a place that is a bit more formal, like Northrop, it’s important to provide the audience with names of the different pieces, or something about the concepts behind them.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

Dorrance Dance with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely in The Blues Project. Photo © Christopher Duggan.

AI: The program also included the citation for why Dorrance got a MacArthur Fellowship. It states, “she is using deep understanding of the history and technique of tap to deconstruct and reimagine its artistic possibilities.” And I think that’s probably true, but I didn’t see that specifically in The Blues Project. Nonetheless, there aren’t enough woman choreographers, let alone woman choreographers that are being recognized on the level that Dorrance has been recognized, and I’m glad that is happening. When it comes to the other Blues Project choreographers—Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick Grant—though I’m glad to see they were given choreographer credit in the program for this performance, I think they deserve more recognition.

RA: Overall, I’m glad I went, but I also think this concept needs work. There’s still somewhere The Blues Project can go to push tap dance into the spotlight. I do hope people go out and see The Blues Project as it travels around. They will definitely see some really good dancers.

 

 

Written by Alejandra Iannone

Alejandra Iannone is an interdisciplinary artist who relocated to the Twin Cities after a decade in New York City. Her writing has been published by DIYdancer, Dancer’s Turn, and the International Journal of Technoethics. She has performed at venues like the Josie Robertson Plaza at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Jacob’s Pillow, the Ailey Citigroup Theater, and the Versace Mansion. Alejandra’s choreography has been presented in New York City and throughout the Twin Cities Metro Area. She is the Creative Director of Sparkle Theatricals, an American Ballet Theatre® Certified Teacher, and a Balanced Body® Certified Pilates Instructor. Alejandra graduated with high honors from the Ailey School Fordham University B.F.A. Program and holds an M.A. in Philosophy from Temple University. She is a citizen of Argentina and the U.S.A.