The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts opened the 2017 – 2018 dance series with the New York based tap dance company Dorrance Dance. The company’s director is the award-winning choreographer Michelle Dorrance who has performed with several well-known companies including STOMP, Savion Glover’s ti dii, Manhattan Tap and LA’s own Jazz Tap Ensemble. Her work brings together nine amazingly talented tap dancers, some of whom also excel at break dancing and other forms of contemporary dance.

Dorrance Dance – Pictured Nicholas Van Young – Photo by Matthew Murphy

Michelle Dorrance, herself an extraordinary tap dancer, also possesses a strong sense of theater. Her work borders on having a narrative while never losing sight of America’s original art form. Dorrance’s work can be subtle, sassy and dramatic. There are moments when she conjures up haunting images before sliding back into pure entertainment using astonishing rhythmic virtuosity.

Performed to the music of the Branford Marsalis Quartet, Jungle Blues is sassy, funky and humorous. It introduces the full company both as dancers and as personalities. It includes wonderful solos by Byron Tittle, who manages to tap while turning off center; the very talented and flirtatious Claudia Rahardjanoto, and Matthew “Megawatt” West who brings back memories of tap master Jimmy Slyde or the Nicholas Brothers. There is a quirky, limber legged duet with Michelle Dorrance and Warren Craft that reflects two people having a heated discussion, and other dynamic ensemble work. Jungle Blues is fun, light and entertaining. It is a very good opener that breezes by with increasing complexity and  rhythmic intricacies.

Three to One earned Michelle Dorrance a 2011 New York Bessie Award. Performed at times in lighting that reveals only their legs, three dancers are costumed in what appears to be black gauze mini dresses. Dorrance is wearing tap shoes, while Byron Tittle and Matthew “Megawatt” West are bare foot. The men perform the same rhythms as Dorrance and the light sometimes opens to show them in entirety. The work has a music box, wind-up toys feel but then the men leave and it turns eerily serious. One of Dorrance’s movement traits involves rotating her legs in and out almost awkwardly. She does so, however, while her feet execute sounds at rapid fire speed. It ends with Dorrance mysteriously and slowly retreating into the darkness, but before she disappears, her face and arms beckon to us to not forget her. It is a beautiful staging of movement and light.

Dorrance Dance – “Three to One” – Pictured Byron Tittle, Michelle Dorrance, Matthew West – Photo by Kevin Parry for the Wallis

The evening closed with a 45-minute theatrical work title Myelination performed to live music performed onstage by Donovan Dorrance (piano/clarinet), Aaron Marcellus (vocals/keys), Gregory Richardson (bass/clarinet) and Nicholas Van Young (percussion). It includes the entire company of dancers and a gorgeous lighting design by Kathy Kaufmann.

Myelination is a anatomical term applied to the nervous system in living beings. The work is edgy with sections that involve a short story, a situation, or a tormented soul controlled by a sinister being. Warren Craft, whose body is as agile as the American actor, clown, and comedian Bill Irwin, taps while falling or twisting into a pretzel on the floor. His solo has the aura of unworldliness which is accentuated when he is joined by Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie. Craft loiters over Asherie as her movements suggest that she is painfully controlled by this sinister entity.  He withdraws slightly, but hovers nearby, never letting go of his control until it destroys her. Later on, there is a fantastic solo with amazing foot work by the suave Nicholas Van Young.

Myelination seamlessly moves from scene to scene and mood to mood while shifting from solos, to duets, to full company involvement. The dance wanders, however and loses site of the central thread that is prominent throughout the first few sections. The atmosphere goes from serious to light to pure entertainment without resolution. The dancers are truly amazing and live music is always a huge plus. The choreography is excellent and Michelle Dorrance fully understands how to direct the audience’s attention to where she wants them to look. For me, Myelination consists of at least two dances; one that moves through different and very personal emotions, and a second one that is inspiring and straight forward tap dancing.

Dorrance Dance – “Myelination” – Pictured l to r Asherie, West, Tittle, Ortiz – Photo by Kevin Parry for the Wallis

Brava to Kathy Kaufmann for her beautiful lighting. Bravo to the incredible performances by Michelle Dorrance, Ephrat Asherie, Christopher Broughton, Elizabeth Burke, Warren Craft, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Byron Tittle, Nicholas Van Young, Matthew West, Gabriel Winns Ortiz and all the musicians listed above. Michelle Dorrance is a very talented and prolific choreographer. I hope to see more of her work.