Review: Michelle Dorrance returns to the Joyce. Where's the zip?

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Review: Michelle Dorrance returns to the Joyce. Where's the zip?
From left: Fritzlyn Hector, Vickie Tanner, Allison Easter, Kimmarie Elle and Stephanie Marshall in “Rhythms of Being” at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, Dec. 7, 2022. In an uneven program, the tap dancer and choreographer presents three new works, including a dance for five women, all former cast members of “Stomp.” (Andrea Mohin/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- Music means everything to Michelle Dorrance — it’s been that way for as long as she can remember. As she writes in a program note for her latest show, what moves her about her favorite tap dancers is “feeling pure emotional energy moving through a body to make music.”

Usually that’s the sensation you come away with after spending an evening with this tap choreographer and dancer: an energetic, emotional conversation between music and dance. It’s never just been about the tap dancing joy she creates on a stage, but a dedication to a different kind of rhythm — the pacing of her programs and dances. They fly.

For her two-week engagement at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan, Dorrance has presented an oddly uneven experience, lethargic in its momentum. The dances felt unfinished. This season, she pays tribute, visually and sonically, to some of the important artistic relationships she has forged during her 25 years living and working in New York City. Along with a work created in collaboration with five former company members of “Stomp” — of which Dorrance was once a performer — there is a premiere set to a score by Aaron Marcellus, a talented musician and company member, and a new duet by Dorrance and Ephrat Asherie.

A b-girl dancer and choreographer also known as Bounce, Asherie is as riveting a performer as Dorrance, but “A Little Room,” despite its brevity, felt rambling. In it, Dorrance and Asherie stood side by side in a small square of light. Confined within it, they moved with sudden gestural quirks to a minimal score by Donovan Dorrance, the choreographer’s brother.

Its spare notes cued them into action: Touching parts of their bodies — a face, a hip — or lurching forward, they retreated back to their stiff, robotic poses. Strobe lighting froze them in brief snapshots; in one, they reached for each other. Was “Room” a reference to self-isolation and the early days of the pandemic? It was contrived, middling in a festival filler kind of way.

Dorrance returned for “45th & 8th,” created in collaboration with the dancers and named for the cross streets near where she and Marcellus first met. It started out with a lively percussive eruption in which six dancers, spread across the length of the stage, and the musicians — Kyle Everett, Matt Parker and Gregory Richardson in addition to Marcellus — struck gold with an opening evocative of its energetic title. Finally, the crowd had reason to cheer.

Alongside Dorrance were Elizabeth Burke, Luke Hickey, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Leonardo Sandoval and Byron Tittle. Dazzling in their synchronicity, they tapped up a storm, whether together or in solos. Here, Dorrance’s powerful attack and seemingly unquenched desire to eat up space became a group effort.

The joviality didn’t last long — or, rather, it flipped back and forth between dancers driving across the floor to more introspective moments for Marcellus, whose rich, layered vocalizations filled the theater. The pacing was strange. While his vibrant score, created with the musicians, opened up space for brief improvisations with the dancers, in the end, it seemed more like a concert with dancers than a fully realized dance.

The play between the dancers and musicians continued as Dorrance, in a solo moment, drifted across the stage with a quiet finesse as she brushed half-circles with the point of her shoe. Soft and serene, with the fluid glide of a skater, she was subtle, as if she didn’t want to overpower Marcellus — his music or his presence.

The evening’s most curious work was limited in scope yet in many ways the most compelling: “Rhythms of Being,” in which Dorrance united members of “Stomp” royalty: Allison Easter, Kimmarie Elle, Stephanie Marshall, Vickie Tanner and Fritzlyn Hector, credited with additional choreography and solo improvisation. It was all the more poignant given the news that the long-running show will close in New York on Jan. 8.

In “Rhythms of Being,” the dancers’ experience and bond were palpable from the start, which began with the women in a huddle, their hands wrapped around one another’s shoulders. Softly they tapped faint beats onto the floor, building rhythms as they broke away briefly to swipe their thighs, dipping into new grooves.

There was an extended section with the dancers seated in chairs, but more captivating was watching their patterns as they moved matter-of-factly across the stage, swooping in and out while creating a percussive tapestry with their bodies. In the program, Dorrance revealed that she brought them together “because of the way women in particular heal us and transform us, and because I feel called to fight our culture that makes us invisible as we age.”

Both sentiments are admirable, and felt. But “Rhythm of Beings” suffered from false endings and lighting so dim that it sometimes seemed the women were dancing in the shadows of the wings. Maybe that was the point: In percussive dance, women have often been cast in the background. “Rhythm of Beings” placed them front and center, but it felt stretched — twisting this way and that, but meandering in its search for new turns.

‘Dorrance Dance’

Through Dec. 18 at the Joyce Theater, Manhattan;

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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