March 29, 2019
They exchanged wits, and shared taps in an opening number that trumpeted City Center’s 75th anniversary of innovation in dance, theater and music. The two MacArthur geniuses, Michelle Dorrance and Bill Irwin shared a playful command of the stage and audience. Sublimely charming, Bill Irwin is known for transforming the circus arts into an individualized physical theater realm tagged “New Vaudevillians.” Equally willing to poke fun at herself, Dorrance’s zany style is reminiscent of 1940’s musical films featuring top-notch dancers like Eleanor Powell.
Dressed in a bedraggled tux and top hat, Irwin resembled a persnickety professor intent on safeguarding soft-shoe etiquette. A satiric take on today’s loud tappers compared to the civilized, sophisticated soft shoe, Lessons In Tradition underscored the undeniable camaraderie between these two artists. By the end of the piece, they were both dressed in baggy tuxes, strutting along and breaking into a fusillade of taps.
Their genuine performance parlance was further cemented by the intoxicating voice and base playing of Kate Davis whose bright red lips contrasted against her black hair. Standing behind a bass, Davis’s assured, jazzy projection nearly stole the show and if these three artists weren’t so busy Lessons in Tradition (with music by Vincent Youmans) could tour non-stop.
Irwin also contributed a new work based on the precursor of the modern day clown tradition: “Commedia dell’arte.” Harlequin and Pantalone stock commedia characters are portrayed by Irwin and the lanky, loose-limbed Warren Craft. Originally based on skits animated by improvisation, the dell’arte theater form perfectly suited the superb improvisers. Pantalone’s (Warren) legs kicked upward every which way when his mischievous servant Harlequinade (Irwin) stole his cane. Intent on serving only one master “dance”, Irwin's actions infuriated Pantalone who abruptly laid a hex on him.
Alas, Harlequin could no longer dance—until the Narrator convinced him that dance lives on! This clever duet showcased their powerful tap improvisations and thespian chops . Irwin’s rubbery body and mobile face expressed emotions that flew across the sad to happy spectrum while Warren lurched and slid into his rage and the deep embrace of their mutually generated theater magic.
The second half of the program featured Dorrance and her gifted dancers in a revival of Jump Monk (1997) to a score by the jazz master Charles Mingus choreographed and staged by the award-winning Brenda Bufalino. Deeply musical, the jaunty sequences weave around the rhythmically dense music performed live by Donovan Dorrance (piano), Aaron Marcellus (vocals—scatting), Gregory Richardson (bass) and Nicholas Young (percussion).
Dorrance’s 2013 SOUNDspace re-convened the majority of the dance ensemble with the addition of Nicholas van Young, and tap dancer whose untucked shirt, loose jacket and somewhat rumpled hair resembled a man thinking "TGIF". However, this low-keyed tapper ripped off some of the most sophisticated riffs combining clear technique and choreographic richness.
In total, Dorrance creates a “soundsphere’ that’s so rhythmically complex, the taps began to sound like an antiphonal choir! The tap ensemble produced syncopated rhythms that passed over and under each other turning the whole evening into a sound extravaganza.
In Program B, Dorrance will premiere Jungle Blues and Bases Loaded.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis