Review: Dormeshia Coasts on Her Tap Mastery in ‘Rhythm Is Life’

It comes as no surprise that “Rhythm Is Life,” the show that Dormeshia Tap Collective is presenting at the Joyce Theater this week, is a classy affair. The tap dancer Dormeshia is the epitome of elegance, and has been since she was a child. But she’s not just classy; she’s classical: so deeply versed in tap tradition and technique that she has the whole of it at her command and never has to worry.

“Rhythm Is Life” is a classic-style tap concert. Dormeshia is joined by a jazz trio and three other hoofers in a format that alternates between solos and group numbers, with the group numbers toggling between sections of unison and serial spots for solo improvisation. Dormeshia’s choreography is much like her improvisations: perfectly measured and modulated, complex without clutter, always clear and never without the buoyant rhythmic sense called swing.

Unlike Dormeshia’s last show at the Joyce — “And Still You Must Swing,” in which she was flanked by her peers Derick K. Grant and Jason Samuels Smith — “Rhythm Is Life” surrounds her with disciples, representatives of a generation of female tap dancers who have grown up with her as a model. The costumes, which Dormeshia designed, take her tasteful style as a company uniform: powder-blue pantsuits with white belts to match white shoes. “We’re all equals,” the outfits suggest, even though one dancer is the original.

Dormeshia is generous in sharing the stage with these younger women, and they reward her trust both by executing her difficult choreography as if with one voice and by offering their own developing voices. Amanda Castro is the most vivacious and theatrical; even when her eyes close in reverie, she seems to be giving that joy to the audience. Christina Carminucci is the most serious, shattering her phrases in a search for greater intensity. Melissa Almaguer, like many talented tyros, sometimes throws down too much at once, but she has the goods.

As one might expect, Dormeshia saves the penultimate slot for her own solo, and it’s a master class. As with other mature artists, the most astonishing elements aren’t the fireworks (although she has plenty of those) but the tossed-off wiggles and embellishments, the impression of total control. During the premiere performance on Tuesday, it was in character when, rather than giving her solo a big finish, she simply walked off — an ambiguous gesture somewhere between hubris and humility.

It was a “leave them wanting more” moment in “a leave them wanting more” show. The whole program clocks in at well under an hour, and while such conciseness is certainly a virtue, the production — first commissioned by Little Island — feels too modest for a queen.

Some of that impression comes from the music, which was composed and arranged by Dormeshia and the bassist Noah Garabedian. Although often tasty, it has a functional quality. It has certainly been made for tap dancing, and it’s effectively varied, but it’s generic, as song titles like “Music,” “Heartbeat” and “The Dance” seem to admit. Each of the songs suggests some jazz standard without being distinctive or memorable enough to become a jazz standard of its own. Garabedian, the pianist Chris McCarthy and especially the drummer Shirazette Tinnin play with high skill and sensitivity but with little sense of risk.

Ultimately, risk, or ambition, is what the show seems to be missing. “Rhythm Is Life” tells us what Dormeshia knows about tap, what she knows better than just about anyone else. But what doesn’t she know? What does this great artist have yet to discover? May her next show be a surprise.

Dormeshia Tap Collective
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater.

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