What do you get when you cross America’s original art form with today’s technology? A reinvigorating artistic experience that wows everyone in the audience.
Dorrance Dance is an award-winning New York-based dance company that both honors tap dance’s history and propels it into the new age of technology. The company returned to the Duncan Theatre on Feb. 7-8 as part of its annual and popular Dance Series with a full-evening work called ETM: Double Down, a collaboration between Artistic Director Michelle Dorrance and fellow company tap dancer Nicolas Van Young that germinated out of the simple need to find a way to amplify (without feedback) tap dancing when it was being performed with live music on a concert stage.
As America’s first street dance form, tap dancing has strong ties with today’s hip hop and house dancing. ETM: Double Down has one dancer (Virgil Gadson) in the cast who served as a counterpoint to the seven talented tap dancers, three musicians, and the ever important production staff — all of whom set this production reeling in motion. And what a delightful and full-throttle night of motion and music it was — the kind that made you so glad that you got out of the house to experience something so alive and so different from anything you might have seen before.
The two-act, evening-length work, which lasted 80 minutes, was thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable. Even though there were some diffuse moments that faltered here and there, it was tightly woven together by the performers’ high-level artistic interaction. Overall, it was a rewardingly refreshing performance.
One of the things that I really admired was the individual performers seamlessly morphing from dancers into musicians and even into singers. As a reviewer, I often comment on whether a dancer has a special connection to the music but on this particular Saturday night, I have to say that my definition of a musical dancer was completely transformed. These dancers were not just musical, they were truly musicians themselves; their exacting footwork took on the role of the percussion in the evening’s music.
ETM: Double Down unfolded slowly on a dark and minimum stage with exposed walls. The performers entered in slow motion pulling wooden squares with black wires hanging out of the back like tentacles that reached into the wings. Different sounds were introduced as a toe tapped one the electronic pads or a set of knuckles hit the wooden surface of another creating a type of audio landscape.
Along the back of the stage were a set of large raised electronic stages that gave another look (and sound) as dancers began to improvise short structured improvisations letting their feet “talk” to each other. A series of solos, duets and quartets followed as well as the introduction of the sneakered Gadson, whose amazing break dancing moves (which were consistently low to the ground and smoothly connected ) served as an interesting contrast to the upright tap dancing.
Musician Gregory Richardson had a little fun as he took center stage plucking a variety of string instruments and using delayed recorded electronics to create his sound. y the time he was playing his bass, he had been joined by five of the dancers who added the percussion to his music with their speedy rhythmic footwork as well as body clapping from atop the raised platforms behind Richardson.
At one point, instead of tapping out rhythms with their feet, the dancers entered the stage with snare drums and just played the drums. Leonardo Sandoval had a great solo where he not only danced but also used his voice as his music. He was joined by fellow dancer and co-creator of the work Van Young who accompanied him with a set of rattlers that sounded like sand.
A nicely focused quartet evolved using another set of electronic wood panels that were set up downstage. Elizabeth Burke, Carson Murphy, Warren Craft and Bryon Tittle captivatingly tapped and grated as they accented their rhythms by dragging their shoes over aluminum grates that were inserted in the boards. At one point, they used lengths of chain which they hit and dropped on the panels to add yet another sound accent.
And this was all before the intermission. The second half continued with more break dancing interwoven with the tap dancing but the next act cleverly began with the wonderful vocals of Aaron Marcellus who was able to quickly pull us back into the performance with an amazing voice landscape which he created on the spot with a hand held remote control which recorded and played back what he had just sung as he continued singing thus layering track after track to his impromptu musical composition.
At one point, the dancers brought out 16 of the small electronic pads and lined them up across the stage for seven of them to interactively dance. The easy charm and full energy of the ensemble came to a rousing finale as all of the performers came downstage and joined in for the immense build-up, which included the musicians adeptly tapping right alongside the dancers. When the show ended, just like spontaneous combustion, the audience leaped up and erupted in a surge of well-deserved applause.
Pianist and controllerist Donovan Dorrance (who is Michelle Dorrance’s brother) and tap dancer Christopher Broughton rounded out the excellent cast of performers. Although Michelle Dorrance herself did not perform in this performance as she usually does, her company did her proud. She had been called back to New York to work on Flying Over Sunset, a new musical she is currently choreographing which is set to premiere on Broadway in April.
From the show on Saturday night, it is clear that Dorrance and her stellar company have reignited an appreciation for the marvel that is tap dancing by bringing it to the concert stage for all of us to enjoy.