Emma | ★★★★ |, PlayMakers Repertory Company through Dec. 4

40th Anniversary Homecoming Concert | North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble | Riverside High School, Durham Saturday, Nov. 26, 4 P.M. | 

Michelle Dorrance, Luke Hickey, and Elizabeth Burke are three of the world’s greatest tap dancers, living and working at the highest level of professional achievement in New York City. Since all three dancers grew up here, it’s no coincidence they’ll be back in town this weekend. But their holiday to-do list has a bit more than chow down with the family.

That’s because all three got their start in dance in Chapel Hill, in the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble (NCYTE). All credit the unassuming small-town company for a large part of making them who they came to be. And when the company celebrates its 40th anniversary with a homecoming concert Saturday afternoon, they’ll be on stage, giving their all.

“It’s literally better than a high school reunion,” says Dorrance, artistic director of Dorrance Dance and a 2015 MacArthur “genius grant” award recipient. “A reunion’s just one class from high school. This is like every class—some of us were eight when we joined the company, and there were eight- to 18-year-olds that we were close with during our time there as we grew up.”

It’s ironic that NCYTE remains one of the better-kept secrets in the region’s performing arts scene due to the touring company’s rare local public performances. Its national reputation is secure as a tap-dance hothouse that’s produced more than its fair share of luminaries in tap since its beginnings in the 1980s. Among recent graduates, alumnus Jared Grimes nabbed a Tony Award nomination this year for his performance as Eddie in the Broadway revival of Funny Girl, after a recurring role in Manifest and a starring role in Swing Kids on Netflix. You can catch Juba Graybeal’s latest work in the just-released Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell holiday film, Spirited. (His younger sister, Makayla, is a senior in the company this year.)

With a rep that distinguished, Dorrance hastens to add that no one will be phoning in a performance for this weekend’s one-off reunion show, where some 30 company alums will join the current cohort of 36 on stage.

“Elizabeth and Luke visited a rehearsal a few weeks ago, and they’re killing it,” she laughs. “[But] we can’t rest on our laurels; we have to come back and slay these dances, and not be the ones that mess them up because we’re overconfident jerks.”

Different subgroups will perform works by company founder Gene Medler and challenging guest choreographers including Dorrance and Ayodele Casel. A live jazz trio featuring bassist Robbie Link, Jim Crew on keys and drummer John Hanks will take on composers from Billy Strayhorn to Vivaldi.

But how does a small-town company make a reputation that big in the world of tap dance? Repertory is important, according to Janet Eilber, co-artistic director of Chapel Hill Dance Theater: combining well-researched ethnic dance from different parts of the world with contemporary cutting-edge choreography from dancemakers like Savion Glover.

“Both have just stood the test of time,” Eilber says.

Everyone also cites the unconventional leadership that Medler, a dancer who has taught at the American Dance Festival in Durham and international festivals from Russia to Rio de Janeiro, has brought to the long-running group.

“As a director, he’s been more someone who has walked alongside his students, rather than in front of them,” says former student and company manager Caroline Vance. “He’s given them all of the tools and trusted them to make decisions. The freedom he’s given his students is something that is very rare.”

“He asks us, ‘Whose company is this?’ and the correct response is, ‘My company,’” Hickey says. “We all feel a sense of company ownership.”

Diversifying ownership diversified responsibility in turn among his students. And teaching by example that artists “dance to express, not impress” and serve an art form and their company before themselves put a healthy check on egos in a field where they can easily be all-consuming.

“Gene really empowered us,” Dorrance says. “He’s the reason we feel this connected, the reason we feel like family. It’s the revolutionary notion that the youth shall lead us, and we are the people we are because of it.”

She cites her company’s existence, diversity, and resilience, being able to “really push hard into this space that tap dance wasn’t always welcome” in a concert dance world, and concludes, “That’s all due to NCYTE. Right.”

Now semi-retired, Medler modestly deflects questions about his contribution to the world of tap: “I don’t speculate too much about it, until maybe after a glass of wine.”

These days, he’s most excited about how students, famous and unknown, are passing the art form on.

“It’s not just that they’ve become beautiful dancers,” he says. “They’ve become—and this is coming from an old hippie—beautiful people.”

Burke recalls idolizing older company members like Jared Grimes “with my little kid brain” when she was starting out in NCYTE as an eight-year-old. Being back in the rehearsal room with them now, “they’re still like my cool older cousins,” she says.

“Not only is everyone extremely talented, but every personality and energy in that room is so unique, and we gel in this really special way.”

Hickey was a high school senior in NCYTE during the company’s 30th-anniversary homecoming. The experience is “really empowering for students who are trying to find their way and figure out who they are,” he says. Hickey calls the interplay between alums and current company members “a really tactile way of seeing where they can go and what they can achieve, whether in tap dance or other avenues. It’s about knowing this is a part of their lineage for the rest of their life.”

PlayMakers Rep’s Emma marks the second original adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel that the region has seen this year. Sweet Tea Shakespeare’s May production at William Peace University may have been easier on the eyes and ears than director Meredith McDonough’s gear- and culture-jamming approach to Kate Hamill’s self-aware (and, occasionally, self-congratulatory) 2019 adaptation.

But that’s entirely by intent, as both artists here are a lot more pissed off at the Regency era that left the women of Britain in life-long mental dry dock.

“An active mind must have occupation, or it will come to mischief,” feisty actor Jamie Ann Romero’s Emma advises us in the play’s opening moments to justify her meddlings as a self-styled matchmaker in the village of Highbury.

That mischief arrives soon enough when Emma diverts a would-be protégé, actor Kimberly Chatterjee’s bland Harriet Smith, from a romance with a groundskeeper. Emma’s class-based prejudice diverts Harriet into the trajectories of other characters in this claustrophobic society, including Emma’s bête noire, Jane Fairfax (a nonplussed Sanjara Taskar), supposedly most available suitor Frank Churchill (Jamar Jones), and the ever-exasperated George Knightley (Eric Bryant).

But Hamill’s psychoanalysis of the 1810s insightfully asserts that such social intrigues are the last refuge of women not permitted any other social, economic, or intellectual outlet. It falls to Mrs. Weston (Rasool Jahan) to point out that in a world where women cannot work, own property, or serve in the courts, “a lady who is not allowed real employment will create and destroy tiny worlds in an attempt to have any stimulation at all!”

To make that point and do justice to that time and this, Hamill takes her adaptation well off Austen’s pages at points. After a memorable second-act meltdown, Emma shakily says, “You don’t remember THAT from the novel, huh?”

And McDonough emphasizes the most irritating elements of Hamill’s various characters here: Jeffrey Blair Cornell’s unctuous, gruel-pushing Mr. Woodhouse, Adam Valentine’s overweeningly romantic Mr. Elton, and Amber Nicole Guest’s shrill Miss Bates, amid jarringly anachronistic transitions to music from Boyz II Men, the Beach Boys, and Lizzo. In commenting on an era determined to impose sense (and sensibility) deprivation and cultural brain death on women, it is appropriate to be discomfited. This provoking, thought-provoking production fills that bill. 

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