**The following spilled out without a ton of editing, so forgive my lack of eloquence in some places; I just had to get it out! I welcome you to share comments and start a conversation! Photos from northrop.umn.edu.**
So much to pull apart that I fear trying to eloquently form it all into words now, yet so much to think about I fear I’ll forget it all if I wait (which I seriously doubt, because this show was so impactful): “The Blues Project” by Dorrance Dance. I finally got to see it at Northrop Auditorium last night. Along with LOTS of other people. What a joy to see so many people out to see tap dance and blues music, both of which fall into the jazz continuum to me. The content of the show actually weaved in and out of several styles along that continuum (rockabilly, African, rock, top-rock, jazz, clogging).
It also weaved together and apart social interactions of the dancers that hinted at larger narrative questions regarding racial dynamics in friendships, romantic relationships and with passersby, oneupmanship, ideological and political divides and surveillance. The way the primarily black and white cast members subtly weaved in and out of relationship with one another quietly encouraged me to have my own dialogue with myself and to ponder questions surrounding race relations. Moments in which dancers became isolated and walked the same rigid pathways in which they were so near yet so far from one another became questions of politic for me when I noticed the bright red scrim and vibrant blue floor jxtaposed against one another. A dynamic solo performed by Derrick K. Grant in which he interacted with the tap mics on the floor got me thinking about surveillance and privacy.
These were just the very subtly underlying contexts that came from the very present and giving performers. They did not give away their expression and emotional experiences felt, processed and shared through rhythmic generation, they gave of it. This is a slight yet important difference. Giving away can feel cheap, like a tactic to manipulate and ‘win over’ an audience simply because emotional display can be vulnerable. Is it vulnerable if the intended purpose is to manipulate? That is a conversation that could take an entire additional article, so I will move on. They gave of. To give of yourself as a performer is to offer your individual experience in a way that invites in those witnessing it to discover whether or not they too feel something from what is being presented.
In “The Blues Project,” each dancers movement experiences were wrought with emotion that were not pasted on top of the choreography, but were generated from within it. Frenetic, repetitive and VERY quick heel drills and lengthy sequences of sixteenth notes build up a kind of tension that simply cannot be accessed in ballet shoes. The connections created between the bodies playing music and the bodies moving was of the moment and communicative, and spoke to the kind of invested and trusting relationships that can be built from these kinds of interactions, which lay the foundation for considering the state of the world together, with respect.
To put it simply, even without any other commentary or intent, the beautiful complexity of the emotional and aesthetic journeys of these dynamic individuals associating and dissociating as groups still would have knocked me off my rocker (i.e. destabilized my day to day movement through life to kickstart my awareness and critical thought). After all, isn’t that what we are all, always doing? Navigating how to be an individual within a group? Within many groups? Within society? Within the world? This is what jazz does. It gives you a set of shared information with which you can jam with (or communicate with) others while also being given space to express your own ideas as an individual within the context of something larger. Play the head together, solo to express your own ideas, and come back together to fit it all into a whole to which all players can relate.
It is not happenstance that this feels like an allegory for what is going on in our worlds (and surely has been, in differing forms, since the dawn of humanity). We are always trying to navigate what it means and entails to have both personal and social sets of information: political, theoretical, aesthetic, emotional. The jazz aesthetic creates space for these ideas to be explored in both personal and social (or intra and interpersonal) ways, together. Beyond that, it does so largely through a tool that we can all access; rhythm. Sidestepping the numerous times you’ve heard anyone say “I have no rhythm,” it is known that all humans have access to musical and rhythmic embodiment as a way to relate to themselves and others (ask revered Biomusicologist John Bispham: he’ll tell you).
It pretty much goes without saying (yet it seems I’ll say it anyway) that Dorrance and her company of dancers have rhythm in spades, and they share it in a way that it opens the audience up to their experiences rather than wowing them into a corner, leaving them with no feelings other than “I could never do that!” Those who question virtuosity as the ONLY goal would agree that this is not the most effective way to encourage people to think and feel on their own terms when viewing art. Dorrance had a big audience at the Northrop on Thursday, November 19th. As mentioned, as a creator, performer, viewer and all-around supporter of dance and music interacting with the jazz continuum or what I often call the ‘American vernacular,’ it was satisfying to see so many people enjoying themselves.
Scratch that. They didn’t just enjoy it. They LOVED it. I assume this due to the large volume of wild cheers. No, I do not buy into the idea that art is only good if the audience cheers. In fact, as someone who really enjoys creating concert dance spaces in which people feel permission to whoop, holler and vocally express the joy they feel from experiencing rhythm-driven dance, the way it happened grated on me a little last night. The cheers often came immediately following feats easily deemed virtuosic (flips over heads, jumps over legs, long and complicated and quick rhythms). It is easy to see virtuosity as a direct line to worthiness or quality when that viewpoint is what is framed over and over on dance television shows. Flips and jumps and gymnastics become correlated with quality in these scenarios because they are easy to process. It is easy to process “Wow! I could never do that!” It requires a lot more though to process the raw emotion and individual aesthetic approaches consistently present in truly excellent work in tap, jazz and other dance forms related to the jazz continuum.
Unfortunately, because the tap and jazz of brilliant choreographers and dancers like Michelle Dorrance and Derrick K. Grant often shares quite a bit of physical resemblance to the tap and jazz that show up on dance television shows and other forms of dance related entertainment media, we often allow correlation to equal causation. Give this, concert dance-savvy viewers often empty concert dance work in tap and jazz of its genuine and impactful content befor they even consider it. Yet, these people were in the audience. Season ticket holders from all walks of life were in the audience. People who share my viewpoints on jazz and tap dance were also in the audience. We all had differing reasons for being there (from ‘it’s on the Northrop season, so I’ll go’ to ‘it’s in my season ticket package, so I’ll go’ to ‘I LOVE and understand the value of tap, so I’ll go!’), yet we were all there. And in between the whoops and hollers for virtuosic feats, there were also many moments where we all sat, still and together, quietly working through the complex experiences of humanity that we were invited to share.
This makes me know there is hope for tap and jazz dance on the concert stage. Michelle Dorrance, THANK YOU for working to break down these ideological barriers to allow space for the inherent values within tap and jazz dance to be seen and appreciated. You are a true example of Andrew Simonet’s assertion that we artists must let go of competitiveness in favor of belief in the mantra that “the success of other artists is good for me.” You are carving out space for us tap and jazzers. I will happily be someone who works, in the wake of the incredible impact of “The Blues Project” being shown here in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, to keep building on this momentum right here in my own community. Thank You!