“The Blues Project”: A Performance for Our Time

by Jean Schiffman

New Dorrance Dance performance aspires to show our country what it is and what it should, and can, be.

The first show that the New York tap dance company Dorrance Dance performed after the recent national election was “The Blues Project,” a collaboratively created, hour-long piece that has been in the company’s repertory since 2013. The audience feedback from that post-election performance, according to artistic director Michelle Dorrance, included comments like “This helps me believe in what our country is and can be and should be.” Dorrance, a long-limbed 37-year-old who founded the company in 2011 and has been tap dancing since her childhood in North Carolina, knows just how deeply American her chosen art form is. She has pointed out in interviews that tap evolved before that other inherently American art form, jazz; slaves from Africa, deprived of their tradition of drumming, relied on their bodies as instruments of rhythmic expression. “I think tap dance is an incredibly transcendent form,” she told an NPR interviewer in 2015, when she was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. “It is born of some of the most oppressed people our country and culture has known and… finds its way to joy.” She adds, in a recent phone conversation from New York, that spiritual music, with its communal refrains, “provides the roots for what is the core of tap and blues.” To integrate those two genres for “The Blues Project,” which San Francisco Performances presents here this month, she joined forces with Toshi Reagon; she’d been a fan of the singer, composer and musician since first seeing her perform years ago. Reagon agreed to compose music for the production. Dorrance and dancers Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant choreographed, and the three of them perform with six other dancers. Says Reagon, also on the phone from New York, “Both tap and blues come out of African-American artistic expression, which means they’re tied to a people enslaved in this country—so the physical language comes from those people.” And, as she points out, they have racism interwoven into them. She wrote 16 songs for Dorrance; she wanted the show to highlight music that came before blues was identified as such, and to show how the blues appears in other forms, “so you hear blues in funk and soul and rock because blues has been the foundation of those forms.” Dorrance chose four for the show. The four segments “truly embody the energy of the American spirit,” she says. Reagon, who appears onstage, singing lead vocals and playing acoustic guitar—along with her band, BIGLovely, established in 1996, comprising four musicians on violin, bass, guitar and drums—says that in composing, she conceptualized the dancers as a musical instrument, and Dorrance, for her part, sees the tap dancing as part of the score. The New York Times wrote that “the dancing seeps through to the last chord and sometimes even beyond it,” and a review in the Boston Globe describes the score as “a little bit rock ’n’ roll… very funky and wonderfully kick-ass.” For Dorrance, onstage improvisation is an integral part of her aesthetic, so she also asked Reagon to improvise new solos for the three principal dancers each night. Reagon talked to the three to get a sense of, for example, their favorite beats. “There’s this huge conversation that’s improvised between our bass player and Derick,” she says, adding, “My notes in my script for Dormeshia say, ‘Do what Dormeshia says, watch Dormeshia.’ She’s such a complicated musician with her tap dance. I have three or four songs that I do differently depending on how she comes out—if she comes out in a melodic way, I approach one way, physical or rhythmic, another way.” For her part, Dorrance likes to not know what’s coming for her solo. “I just ride the waves,” she explains. “I’m so empowered and touched by her music.” “Each time a dancer takes a solo, it’s always different,” notes Reagon. “There’s one song, ‘You Know Me,’ slow and quiet instrumentally, where we almost shadow the dance, but it’s the hardest for me because I have to get out of the way for these dancers, but if I’m off, it’ll ruin everything. It’s amazing to work with these people who bring something new to the table.” Dorrance Dance describes its work as pushing the form “rhythmically, technically and conceptually”—the Washington Post wrote that Dorrance’s work “pays homage to tradition, yet she does everything differently, and she does everything very, very well”—but Dorrance can’t seem to talk about the form without referring to her predecessors, from her mentor, Gene Medler (who trained her as a youngster in North Carolina), to such inspiring contemporary figures as Savion Glover, with whom she’s danced, and revered teachers like the late Jeni LeGon, who herself paid tribute to the largely forgotten Whitman Sisters, a quartet of hoofers who performed on the black vaudeville circuit. “There are great academic historians doing more and more work on tap,” observes Dorrance, who also teaches. “It’s our privilege to be historians as well. That’s how we pass it on—in a dance classroom.” A day after the Women’s March, Dorrance was reflecting on performing the quintessentially, deeply American “The Blues Project” four years after it was created. She says, “I think we’re all charged with a fervor that’s unshakeable. Whether or not this show feels like America to people, as individuals and as citizens of this country, it’s a part of who we are onstage and as we walk down the street.” Because of the history and nature of this particular piece, and the current political climate, she expects that the passions and motivations of the performers will be incorporated into the work “in ways we have yet to see.” Mar. 16 ? 18 The Blues Project/Dorrance Dance Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 701 Mission St., San Francisco 978-2787