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Dorrance Dance gives ‘Blues’ a lift at Jacob’s Pillow

Dorrance Dance performing at Jacob’s Pillow.Christopher Duggan/Jacob’s Pillow Dance/Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow Dance.

BECKET — Already spilling over with prodigious talent, Michelle Dorrance — hoofer extraordinaire and founder/director of the tap troupe Dorrance Dance — also has some circus skills up her sleeve.

Dorrance is the latest in the line of young dancers who find themselves in the tap world's limelight, looked to as a potential torchbearer. Honoring the genre's hallowed past while cultivating growth in the form is quite the trick, like juggling while walking a tightrope. With the world premiere of "The Blues Project" at Jacob's Pillow, Dorrance seems to skim, hummingbird-like, across that highwire.

The Pillow is one of Dorrance's biggest fans, recognizing her with this year's Jacob's Pillow Dance Award, an honor that comes with a $25,000 cash prize.


With a cast of nine dancers and five musicians, the approximately hourlong "Project" isn't a linear history lesson but a potpourri of set pieces evocative of bygone eras. Co-choreographed by Dorrance, Derick K. Grant, and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (in collaboration with the ensemble), an exciting aspect of this pleasure-filled work is the group choreography, the simple but effective use of patterning. In one of the opening phrases, the dancers slide and weave so effortlessly it looks like either the room is spinning or that they are ice-skaters gliding along a frozen pond.

In this dance form, a vast spectrum of physicality and personality is embraced, and students are given room to find their own way into executing steps; the individuality that results from this approach suits the common tap performance scenario of virtuosic solos amidst a group "showcase." Here, however, the steps are mostly just the steps: Trailblazer though Dorrance may be, she knows that this piece, a sincere, energetic, and entertaining love letter to the past, needn't be about the deconstruction or reconstruction of vocabulary. It's a lovely surprise to witness this company of soloists, when called to do so, merging their phrasing and spatial awareness with the expertise of a well-drilled corps de ballet.


Still, happily, there are delicious solos in the mix, each telling a mini-story, variations on the many trials of love (the blues' favorite subject). Grant is both frustrated and lonely, finishing his dance with a stomp; the elegant Sumbry-Edwards seems quite comfortable in her skin — more relieved than bereft— and she finishes with a few satisfied clicks of a foot. I'm not sure if Dorrance is chasing or escaping, but she burns up the floor with an impatient fire before settling down, bringing her defiantly wide stance together, feet toeing in with a comic ruefulness.

The rest of the ensemble also shine throughout — the catlike Karida Griffith and Byron Tittle, the boyishly athletic Nicholas Van Young, the precocious Christopher Broughton, the quietly effervescent Elizabeth Burke and Claudia Rahardjanoto — but the brightest star of the evening may be the score. Performed live by composer Toshi Reagon (on acoustic guitar and honey- or husky-sweet lead vocals) and her excellent band, this compilation of original blues makes loving reference to its musical past: It's a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll, yes, but also very funky and wonderfully kick-ass. This is the hair of the dog I'd like to listen to the next time I'm feeling, well, a little blue.

Janine Parker can be reached at parkerzab@hotmail.com.