As the final hours of Halloween began to wane, a resounding tap-tap-tapping issued forth from the center of the Guggenheim’s concrete floor. The specter, or spectacle, was the revival of tap geniuses Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young’s 2017 “Rotunda Project” performance — a thrilling (but in no way horrifying) treat for the well-heeled guests gathered for the museum’s Works & Process Gala.
The piece, which was commissioned by the Guggenheim as the inaugural work to open the “Rotunda Project,” features 17 dancers (including Dorrance and Van Young) who use different forms of dance — such as breaking (performed by Ephrat Asherie and Matthew “Megawatt” West), soft- and hard-shoed tap and improvisation — to create a multi-layered sonic composition.
Surrounded by guests who either sat at the 14 candle-lit tables or stood along the rotunda ramps, Dorrance began the performance on top of a drum, beating out a rhythm as dancers dressed in black strode onto the museum’s main floor, bathed in blanket of blue light. Some slid boxes while others hit red wooden sticks against each other, creating a staccato knocking noise that accentuated the combative gestures articulated in the choreography. A battle, it seemed, had commenced.
Over the duration of the 40-minute piece, dancers used their hands to play rhythms on the tap platforms; a trio perched at the top of the rotunda sang out enchanting notes; and at a certain point, a chorus of dancers made their way up the spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic ramp to use the architecture as a tap device of sorts. Here, the dancers generated grooves by hitting the walls of the incline with hollow plastic sticks known as boomwhackers — a sort of tubed drum that creates different pitches depending on its length.
The Wright building, though beautiful in its curvy openness, presents a unique challenge for an artist trying to harness the sharp, precise rhythms and counter-rhythms of tap. While testing choreography, Dorrance quickly learned that sounds made in the round were not universally consistent throughout the space. So the performance was adapted to flow around the rotunda, finding its orchestration in tight partnering or, in some cases, with the audience itself — like when Van Young stood atop a wooden box to conduct the audience in an exercise of clapping.
It wasn’t until the very end of the piece that two long boards were slid out for a traditional, hard-shoe tap number. At this point, the energy sustaining the evening had built to such a height that the intensified volume of the final movement served as what seemed like an inevitable climax.
When the show came to a close, the dancers laid on the ground on either side of the platforms to take their bows from the floor. Rising up from their waists with the backs of their legs firmly on the ground, the dancers reached toward their toes to give the impression that they were standing and bowing. This optical illusion was a fitting wink of a stage trick that pulled together the magic of seeing the performance from above — a rare perspective that’s not easily replicated.
Top Image: "Works & Process Rotunda Project": Michelle Dorrance with Nicholas Van Young, February 16, 2017. Photo: Matthew Murphy.