There’s something ancient, timeless and fearlessly experimental about “The Blues Project,” an hour-long rhythmic spree unleashed by the insistent tappers of Dorrance Dance and composer/singer/bandleader Toshi Reagon.
Their show — which really should be called “The Bliss Project” — landed Wednesday at the Kennedy Center. It’s difficult to recall when the Eisenhower Theater has ever felt so funky — and so central to human existence. This intimate and rowdy merging of dance and music, with one disappearing into the other, hits you like a sonic distillation of a blistering American past and its perilous present, with a transcendent strength of spirit woven through.
Michelle Dorrance’s freewheeling creativity in the art of tap is marked by a wide wild streak. She doesn’t do Savion Glover-style, heavy power-tap, nor does she truck with light-as-rain Hollywood tap. Dorrance gets the full body pumping, and it’s often pulled in different directions, the arms winging out, the knees circling madly, the feet chattering in impossible syncopations.
Her dancers are exquisitely balanced, even off-axis. They can skid around as if the stage is paved in banana peels and then coolly take up the beat again while you’re still hyperventilating. Your nervous system is all a-jiggle. It’s a rush — for them, for us and, undoubtedly, for the lineage of ancestral hoofers looking down from their pearly street corners in the sky.
That’s what is most interesting about “The Blues Project”: It honors tap’s street-tough, resilient past, born of the African American experience and defiance at every turn. And it also centers tap firmly in this complicated present, where pain is still with us, but joy is, too, and the sustaining community of others.
“The Blues Project,” which has toured nationwide, premiered in 2013 after Dorrance and a couple of her dancers found themselves noodling around with some funk-blues sounds. Dorrance asked Reagon, one of her musical heroines, if she would like to collaborate. Reagon went into her studio and came out two days later with 16 new songs, as Dorrance told the audience in a post-show talk.
Dorrance, who toured with the commercial hit “Stomp” before launching her company, went on to win a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2015. She’s not only the choreographer of “The Blues Project” along with dancers Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry Edwards and others; she's one of; she’s one of the leading dancers, and a master of divided impulses. She flies into the air, and her shins churn around crazily, like a marionette’s. In her solo, she somehow moves in two directions at once, with a foot flicking forward and back, as if she were stuck and trying to free herself.
The song that accompanies her is “River of Life,” written by Bernice Johnson Reagon of the beloved Washington a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. She’s Toshi Reagon’s mother, and she was in the audience Wednesday. Toshi Reagon has a sweet, high voice, but rich like her mother’s. It’s impossible to imagine “The Blues Project” without it, or without her band, BIGLovely. Dancers Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards also had stellar solo turns, full of yearning and a kind of hard-won reconciliation. They didn’t simply dance — they told stories, written on the body and clear as song.