Tap is a dance that honors its history. Along with jazz, it grew out of a post-slavery world rife with cruelty and deprivation for black Americans. And yet, from these roots grew an art of the feet, body, ears and mind that continues to move us, continues to thrill and continues to evolve today.
Michelle Dorrance is today’s most brilliant proponent of tap, and she shows us at the Pillow how she honors both the history and the future of tap.
In “All Good Things Come to an End,” the music of Fats Waller frames a series of ironic tableaux, handwritten titles on posterboard placed on an easel to the side of the stage with titles such as “Cane and Abel,” “The Tortoise and the Hair,” “The Myth of the American Dream” and “The Theaters Have Burned.”
These are puns on old tropes, just as Fats Waller’s cigar chomping, bowler-hatted grin while belting out rollicking songs of dark irony is presented as humor. “Your Socks Don’t Match” and “Your Feet’s Too Big” may be funny to the white world, but encoded in these songs’ humorous message is the dark truth of “Your Face is Too Black.” This message couldn’t be said outright, but hides under the ironic lyrics of his song and the swagger of his smile.
Here, to Waller’s brilliant, iconic, ironic, exuberant stride piano and vocals, Michelle Dorrance, joined by three women dancers, put on the faces of Raggedy Ann as the happy tramp, and Amos and Andy as grinning black faces that posed no threat to the white order.
Alternating with Waller were unaccompanied tap ensembles, rich tapestries of sound, layered, complex, telling their truths in their own tap world. One such interlude had the women in military jackets, one with the medals of command. They danced in unison, on the beat in military cadence until the officer departed. Then the remaining three, set free, devolved into syncopation, into the rhythms and improvisations of their own forms and style. This is a strong commentary on what it takes to get by, and on the power of the original voice.
There was no didacticism here. We couldn’t resist tapping our feet, gasping at the brilliant fusion of riff and gesture, and connecting to overwhelming personal narratives.
“All Good Things Come to an End” concluded with a solo by Josette Wiggan-Freund, who discarded the tatters of “Getting By” for a silver sheath, and, appropriating a bright pink scarf from other shoulders, draped it around herself, stepping upon a small square pedestal, and with the staccato of concentrated, intricate footwork, appeared to dance herself into the future like a rocket launching into space.
In real time, at the end of the piece, the dancers actually launched themselves, one by one, out the half-open barn door at the back of the stage to the ground beneath the gorgeous forest canopy. Yet another stunning example of a Dorrance artistic value: Show, Don’t Tell.
After an intermission, Dorrance’s “Myelination” became that future. Rather than narrative, “Myelination” was a neurological metaphor for a living organism, filled with energy, sending out signals, connecting and reconnecting, crossing boundaries and genres from tap to hip-hop, to handstands and upside-down splits.
Solos, duets, trios and multitudes crackled with electricity, improvisation, shouts and whispers of the legacies of their and our tap forebears, and at the same time protecting and insulating us, just as myelin performs its physiological functions in our nervous systems, from unwanted intrusive shocks.
And all this was bound together—indeed, allowed—by the consuming rhythms of her brother, Donovan Dorrance’s, music, like brain bark encasing this sparking, sparkling, muscular, joyous, ever-growing, organic miracle of tap.
Dorrance Dance performs in the Ted Shawn Theatre at Jacob’s Pillow, 358 George Carter Road, Becket, Massachusetts, through Sunday, July 22. For For tickets and more information, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to jacobspillow.org or call the box office at (413) 243-0745.