PLATFORM 2011: Body Madness writer-in-residence Ana Isabel Keilson on Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards
March 17, 2011
The Silver Feet of Danspace Project
What happens when dance is all feet but doesn’t travel anywhere? Perhaps it takes us to a place where we can radically rethink what we are seeing. Danspace Project’s first ever all-tap evening, shared by choreographers Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, takes us back by way of Jimmy Slyde and Michael Jackson to, of all places, Ancient Greece. In the process, their work makes us reassess why tapping is so important.
The performance is structured around a spatial constraint. Given that the floor of St. Mark’s church is not designed for tapping, a rectangle of marley is downstage center. This is where virtually all of the performance occurs, the canvas upon which Dorrance and Sumbry-Edwards’ tapping figures emerge. It also limits the extent to which they can utilize spatial depth. The result is a lively one-dimensionality; in both Dorrance’s and Sumbry-Edwards’ work, dancers move in and out of lines, restricted to the marley’s relatively narrow frame.
The first dance on the program, Remembering Jimmy, by Dorrance, however, is the exception to this flat-rule. The suite of dances, a tribute to the late Jimmy Slyde (1927-2008), takes place throughout the church, in patches of hidden marley (in the balcony, on the altar), or, as in the first section, without tap shoes and throughout the space. Slyde’s stylistic innovations have inspired generations, and the depth of own career is equally inspired: during the 1940s and 1950s Slyde performed regularly with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie. Slyde then relocated to Paris for years, returning to the USA where, at the sprightly age of sixty-two, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the 1989 Broadway musical Black and Blue. At around 2:00 in this video you can see some of his signature moves.
Ironically, there is no sound in part of Dorrance’s tribute to Slyde: in the first section, the fourteen performers, wearing all white, move and tap in socks. Dancing in complex linear formations, the dancers exuberantly skate across the church, like kids sliding in concert across a giant kitchen floor. Their arms, staying above their torsos, form alternately angular and organic shapes in accordance with the dictates of their movements, originating always from their feet. Their pleasure in dancing is palpable, yet their rhythm is ghostly: we can’t hear it, but we can see its trace embodied by the movement. Sonically, all is quiet, absent. Visually, all is beautiful, celebratory, present. Literally and metaphorically, we are awash in a slippage.
An aside and visual association: during Sumbry-Edwards’ solo, Gone Too Soon, one of her movements in particular, a tiny pattering motion with one foot, recalls Yvonne Rainer’s bird-or pony-like gesture in the beginning (1:10, to be precise) of her 1966 solo Trio A.
Dorrance and Sumbry-Edwards’ work provides many moments in which tappers pass through this space: they bring us through the gateway between the human-rhythmic and the wild animal-rhythmic, leaving us in a land somewhere between the two. These moments draw us into a world that is fantastical and strange, not unlike the modernist world of Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-Midi d’une Faune (1912). Faune, inspired by painting on Greek vases, scandalized the art world with its raw, bestial movement vocabulary and flat, one-dimensional treatment of stage space.
In the spirit of Nijinsky, Dorrance’s silent tribute to Slyde captures the muted, alabaster beauty of an Ancient Greek frieze: Dorrance and company are Greek sculptor Pheidias’ fifth-century friezes on the Parthenon come to life; they are the dancers at a symposium depicted on a terracotta urn by Attic painter Lydos. The comparison with Pheidias is particularly relevant, I think, given that tappers are frequently referred to as “hoofers”: many of the Pheidias’ friezes feature images of men, horses, and the mythological man-horse hybrid, the centaur. Sections of Sumbry-Edwards’ Blood on the Dance Floor: A Tribute to Michael Jackson and Paul Kennedy features moments of wild tap dance-offs, a present day centauromachia, the battling between man and centaur. In another moment, Cartier Williams’ solo in Dorrance’s A Petite Suite shows us the moment when the human morphs into the bestial. As Williams dances, he teeters on the edge of being carried away by the rhythmic transformative gallop of his own movement.
Dance is no stranger to themes and images from classical antiquity: the gods of one side of dance history—Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, George Balanchine, and Jerome Robbins—all frequently employed classical themes in their dances. Yet ideas evoked by a dance form not ordinarily associated with antiquity—tapping—and some of its major themes warrant consideration. For example, images of virtuosic feet abound in classical literature. While translations may vary, characters in Homer are often described by foot-epithets: in the Iliad Iris, messenger to the gods, is “wind-footed”; warrior Achilles is “fleet-footed”; Achilles’ mother, Thetis, is “silver-footed.” An image too good to be true! Taps are made of silver: Dorrance, Sumbry-Edwards are the “silver-footed” mothers of this performance. Elsewhere in mythology, Hermes, another messenger to the gods, has wings on his sandals (an ancient prototype of the tap shoe?). Characters, such as those depicted by Lydos, stomp grapes with their feet in ecstatic dance, music, and wine-making celebrations to Dionysus.
On the other end of the spectrum, some historical-political re-imaginings of the body in antiquity are much more ominous. The most well known examples in the twentieth century occurred under Fascism and Nazism: bodily representations promoted by both Hitler and Mussolini fetishized the Greco-Roman physique, as well as other aestheticized aspects of classical antiquity (including the role of ruins) as a way of advancing racist tropes about the strength, virility, virtuosity, and most importantly, control, of the Nazi (Fascist) body. These propagandistic associations between ancient Greece and National Socialism provided hugely influential revisionist narratives about the historical legitimacy of Nazi ideology. The classical-Nazi body in motion is captured best in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938), a documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Scroll 7:00 into this clip.
While Dorrance and Sumbry-Edwards’ work does not engage directly with themes from ancient Greece, juxtaposing the two reminds us that the body in antiquity is not always one in control. The dancing of the Chorus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, for example, shows us a physical impulse that ultimately exceeds itself, becoming something untamable, irrevocable. Orgiastic rites to Dionysus are simultaneously celebratory and dangerous, examples of when too much physical virtuosity can spiral out of control. Although the tapping in Dorrance and Sumbry-Edwards’ evening is nothing but joyful, their dancing similarly shows us the thin line between the technical and the wild—the controlled and the bacchic/orgiastic. Many soloists, while dancing, look at their feet with mock surprise to highlight the performative ease accompanying their extremely complex, challenging steps. What results is a reminder of the Slyde-esque moments when feet threaten to slip out from underneath the body, when careful choreography suddenly collapses into chaos.
Lastly, it is worth noting that Dorrance and Sumbry-Edwards are women working in a field led predominantly by men; it is also worth noting that tap is frequently locked into its historical identification as an American (and, particularly African-American) vernacular dance form. Largely due to ignorance, racism, and embedded cultural stereotypes, many people catty-corner tap into a form of expression containing slim merit beyond popular entertainment. Other critical readings of tap portray it as a visual analog to modernization, emblematic of the capitalization, industrialization, and mechanization of the body. Thinking about Dorrance and Sumbry-Edwards’s work, a different picture emerges. In fact, their work brings us closer to a more fundamental understanding about the relationship between dance, rhythm, and the spaces in which the two unite. More significantly, this space has the potential for great ambiguity and power, one that destabilizes our expectations and transforms our selves. Perhaps their dance is not so far from what Euripides’ chorus in The Bacchae describes as “to dance for joy in the forest/to dance where the darkness is deepest/where no man is.”