Dorrance Dance propels percussive invention

The stage is in shadow, and the impact resounds like a hickory stick on a dunun drum. Feet pound a sounding box. And then the sound quiets to a rocking like wind in palmetto, like thunder and heat lightening before the rain.

This is tap and percussive dance stripped bare. Light comes up on six moving feet, and they’re holding the beat steady, shifting syncopations with every part of the foot, pulsing the ball and heel, rocking to the side, sliding, pausing, setting a toe tip precisely against the stage … They’re playing the whole old barn theatre like a drum.

The sound builds and the light comes up in a wave on Michelle Dorrance as she rockets into polyrhythms, solo, a cappella and accelerating. In the newly renovated Ted Shawn Theatre, she is guiding her company in SOUNDSpace, as Dorrance Dance returns to Jacob’s Pillow, pushing and revealing what percussive dance can do.

Sterling Harris performs in Sound Space with Dorrance Dance. Press photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Sterling Harris performs in Sound Space with Dorrance Dance. Press photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

Even to a newcomer in the first few minutes, her movement feels original and organic. Tap and percussive dance have deep roots in jazz and African musical traditions, and respect for that long and varied lineage seems to animate her work, in her complex combinations of rhythms, in her dynamic gestures, and in her wide-ranging company and the space they have on this stage to perform with cooperation and individuality.

Dorrance is known internationally for her choreography involving the whole body, for her tap and percussive dance with larger ensembles, for collaborations with international artists like Dormeshia, Savion Glover, Derick Grant — and for her sheer exuberance.

She has connections here at the Pillow across many years — she has performed here often and taught tap at the Pillow School here since 2014, returning regularly since tap became a regular part of the school in 2019. Four of the dancers involved in tonight’s performance are Pillow alums — and one will study with her here this summer.

And tonight opens with a celebration the 10th anniversary of one of her company’s signature works, re-imagined for this space. In the first half, the company sets out on an exploration of sound, from soft-shoe as subtle as a wave on sand to hard soles, to bare feet. And each dancer has their own time in the light.

Leo Sandoval performs body percussion with a whistle like a night bird and an inflection of Step dance — he’s not in gumboots here but in pliant soles, snapping, rolling sound across the body. It’s a powerful convergence and seems a natural one for anyone who has seen him perform with his company on the outdoor stage here last summer with Music from the Sole, blending Brazilian rhythms and tap and jazz.

In a peak moment in the first half, the light comes down and the dancers disperse through the room, and the performance goes on in the dark. An invisible presence on stage sets a beat, and another answers in the wings, another near the side doors, another at the back — the sound curves around us, loud and soft, like wingbeats, like a field of barnstormers jumping their propellors. The beat condenses like a bass note at the edge of hearing — you can feel it in the foundations.

Luke Hickey, Michelle Drrance, Addi Loving, Sterling Harris and Claudia Rahardjanoto tap together in Sound Space. Press photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow
Photo by Christopher Duggan

Luke Hickey, Michelle Drrance, Addi Loving, Sterling Harris and Claudia Rahardjanoto tap together in Sound Space. Press photo courtesy of Jacob's Pillow

And then the music rises — Luke Hickey and Addi Loving are trading off with Gregory Richardson on bass, improvising, sliding and spinning across the stage, and the whole ensemble comes together, trading solos, Sterling Harris with speed and force, Dylan Szuch skating on his hard soles, Claudia Rahardjanoto with poised precision …

But it’s in the second half that the sound crests. The full band is on stage together now. Kyle Everett on drums, Matt Parker on sax and Aaron Marcellus on piano join Richardson in Marcellus’ new work, 45th and 8th — named for the street corner where he and Dorrance met, says Pillow artistic director Pamela Tatge.

If you were looking for the Dorrance Dance of the Blues Project with Toshi Reagon, for their torrent of rhythm surrounded in rich melody and soul — here it is. Here solos and duos trade off and blend into the full ensemble. The dancers improvise across the width of the stage. The sax walks out to lock eyes with them, and they’re orbiting around him.

The rhythms shift and intensify, one playing off another, Sandoval in counterpoint with a high flute —

And then in a moment, Marcellus stands up from the piano, faces us center stage and begins to sing. He’s singing solo, a high and rising call. Then a bass murmur, a harmony — and he’s singing with himself. Each line of melody loops and melds, and the sound transforms as one layer laps another.

The dancers are all around him now. They’re changing up rhythms, facing off in challenge, with the fire of a drum circle, the sheer high of skill and communion in the music. It’s the laughing challenge of one flying mind and body to another — meet me, feel me, hear me, push me farther, share my energy and enlarge me and roll with me — like a confluence of rivers.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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