A low voice calls over solo guitar. A warm bass and rippling lines of dancers sound rapid beats like a light rain. A strong tenor builds over blues chords in a call-and-response rhythm:
“I got a woman — she stays on my mind … She’s built in the blood, and she’s holding the line — line — line …”
When composer Toshi Reagon performs her own songs with her band, Big Lovely, her music can hold folk songs and field hollers, spirituals and swing in one tune.
She brings The Blues Project to the ’62 Center in Williamstown, as tap dance icons Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and Derick K. Grant will join Michelle Dorrance, an acclaimed dancer and choreographer in her own right, to present the work they and Reagon have created together.
Since the project premiered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2013, Reagon has composed more than 16 original pieces of music for it.
Grant and Sumbry-Edwards have choreographed the work with Dorrance, and the three and will perform with Michelle’s company, Dorrance Dance.
“I’ve dreamt of a project like this for a long time,” Dorrance said by phone from New York City after a weekend performance in Hong Kong.
She has loved Reagon’s music for many years, she said. She heard a live concert for the first time the week after her 18th birthday, and she has been a fan going back to the concerts Reagon has given on her own birthday every year for more than 30 years.
Dorrance recalled a live show 15 years ago.
“She would cover unbelievable tunes back to back,” she said. “She could sit in anything and still be herself while maintaining the integrity of the music. It would floor me.”
She feels the range and skill in Reagon’s original music, looking back to what has come before and making it contemporary to the moment Reagon picks up her guitar.
“She can do anything,” Dorrance said.
She first had the chance to work with Reagon in 2013 as a guest in Celebrate the Great Women of Blues and Jazz, a musical homage Reagon created and co-directed with drummer Allison Miller.
Backstage, Dorrance took the chance to ask Reagon to work with her on a new project to merge tap and blues.
“And she said ‘Girl, I think we should,’” Dorrance said. “She was willing to put her heart and spirit into it. … I knew she had a vision for this legacy.”
Tap dance and blues and jazz music share old roots, she said. They were born on the plantations. People taken by force from West Africa and enslaved came here with traditions of percussive dance, and they would talk over distances with the sound of drums. When slave owners forbade the drums and took them away, the people working in the plantation houses and fields kept up communication with their bodies.
Percussion, tap dance and forms of music grew in these harsh conditions. Coming into the Blues Project, Dorrance touched this legacy with deep respect. And she knew from the beginning, she said, she wanted to bring this work alive alongside Sumbry-Edwards and Grant — internationally acclaimed performers integral in the tap world.
They have led this project with her, and she looks up to them as warm generous artists, for their voices and experience, and for their gifts as as soloists, choreographers and musicians. Tap today is both dance and percussion, she said — movement and music.
As they dance to original music played live, it is also improvisation.
“Reagon brings a breadth of art,” Dorrance said. “She reflects what’s happening in our culture.”
In Reagon’s hands, a quarter of each performance changes every night. While the music and group choreography have remained constant since the premiere, Dorrance said, in the dance solos Reagon will surprise each dancer with folk songs, songs from her repertoire, music from her mother — Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founding member of the world-traveling a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.
“With Dormeshia, the two of them collaborate to create a new composition each time,” Dorrance said.
Reagon and Grant have crafted the ideas and feel of his solo between them, and at time she will revolutionize the music for him, too.
As dancers, Grant and Sumbry-Edwards have some of the best swing sensibilities of any in the field, Dorrance said. They take fundamental elements and embellish and enfold them, and make them come alive.
Grant is one of the most creative soloists she has ever seen, she said, and Sumbry-Edwards can take even fundamental steps, moves a young tap dancer would have in her first year, and change them at the core to bring them back vital and re-formed.
That kind of creative creative work, blending the past and present, moves her. Dorrance recalled masters of the dance, mentors who passed away when she and Grant and Sumbry-Edwards were in their teens, who would tell her and young dancers in her generation to maintain their roots, but to be themselves.
She has taken that advice with her as she created this new work from the foundations of tap. And she wanted to create The Blues Project with Grant, Sumbry-Edwards and Reagon because for her they embody the tradition. She feels the history is often overlooked, she said. Tap dance has grown from oppression and a need for communication. The movement and the music grew from a spirit that suffered and bled — and spoke, and held onto beauty.
“It embodies such pain,” she said. “And it harnesses so much power.”
“… This is what it has been for so many people to be American. It’s not something we often (recognize) as the heartbeat of our culture — but it is.”
This story first ran in the A&E section of the Berkshire Eagle; my thanks to Arts & Entertainment editor Jeffrey Borak. In the photo at the top, Derick K. Grant performs in The Blues Project. (Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy of ’62 Center)