Curator's Letter

This month, Danspace Project commissioned a full evening of tap—the first ever in its 37-year history.

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards by Eduardo Patino.

It featured the work of Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards in the reverberant sanctuary of Saint Mark’s Church, and was curated by me under the rubric “Rhythm and Humor,” part of the Platform series initiated by Danspace’s visionary director, Judy Hussie-Taylor. It has been a long-held dream of mine to see tap at Danspace. I integrate tap in my own artistic work and I wanted to do the same as curator.

About a year ago, when I was putting together this evening, I thought of my early years in New York’s “downtown” dance world.

Programming was much more anarchic then; we hadn’t grown so sclerotic about genres and forms and which methods of experimentation are acceptable. Maybe we lost our sense of play when somatic work took the place of training in dance classes with music, maybe when we began to envy Western European conceptual work without really feeling an internal urgency about making it, maybe the end of the dance boom brought about a willful disengagement with the public, an almost churlish and petulant refusal to consider things outside a certain view of experimentation. Maybe because tap is a tradition, it’s marginalized by downtown dance folk.

The word “contemporary” didn’t exclude tap then and shouldn’t now.

So I sought out Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. Dormeshia is sui generis, a masterful technician who has gleefully introduced high heeled tap shoes as an option for women (and I might add, for men). For years they’d been rejected as a sexist artifact which put female tappers at a technical disadvantage. But Dormeshia’s technique is so pointed, so finely cut, no high heel could dull its edge. Beyond this particular heresy, Dormeshia is glamorous and earthy and has been at the forefront of tap’s renaissance over the last 15 years. She was also a mentor to Michelle Dorrance.

Michelle is a real choreographer—I’m not modifying that term with the word “tap.” She is not only interested in foot rhythms. She also cares about shape, space, the arrangement of visual information, and unusually for a tap dancer, silence—not as an absence but as a structural element.

Many tap dancers use silence to create space or suspension in their work. Michelle goes further. She has set a whole piece for dancers without tap shoes and she can make silence as much a touchstone as taps in her work. Her segment began with a group of dancers in a ghostly, almost lunar sliding dance performed in socks against the gleaming floor of the church which surrounded the smaller tap floor set up for the shod-hoofing. This culminated in a cagey and ruminative tap solo right on the altar. It was heart stopping.

Seeing the tap show helped me see other things, too. I was much more attentive to how Aynsley Vandenbroucke, another artist in my series, dealt with rhythm in her stepless, nearly movement-free piece last weekend. The information and ideas she uses are exquisitely choreographed and quite poetic but, because I’d seen the tap show, I was able to view the segment wherein Aynsley and Brian Rogers typed out a gentle argument onto large computer screens as something akin to a highly syncopated tap duet, much like the one in Michelle’s show danced by Ryan Casey and Elena Steponaitis. Their ratcheting tap clusters had the same bite and grace as Aynsley and Brian’s overlapping dialogue. Rhythm speaks in many ways.

I’m reminded of a line from the movie The Bandwagon: “There is no difference between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet.” Jack Buchanan said this while playing an avant-garde theater director.

He would know; Jack Buchanan was a tap dancer.

Contributor

David Parker

DAVID PARKER is a choreographer and hoofer. In addition, he has lately been writing for Dance Magazine and curating for Danspace, the 92nd Street Y and his own space, the West End Theater, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. His newest show, Misters and Sisters, will open at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater in June.

ADVERTISEMENTS