Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down resists any simplistic form of categorisation. Yes, there are seven tap dancers, but there is also a b-girl dancer spinning across the floor, and three musicians. But the dancers are also instrumentalists, joining in on drums and percussion instruments. Not just that, but the dancers’ tapping on their electronic boards actually generate their own music which they illustrate with gleeful precision. It will certainly make you rethink what tap is capable of.
The performance is an intricate melding of different forms and when it all comes together (as it does in the uplifting finale) it sweeps you along with its energy and vibrancy. The work seems a little slow to start up and there are odd moments where the momentum drops and you have the sense that the company are only beginning to learn to exploit fully what can be done with all the tools at their disposal. But it also seems certain that they are very definitely on the way and whatever they do next, we need to see it. The work feels very fresh and of the moment.
Michelle Dorrance founded the company with the aim of showing what could be done with what she describes as the “first American dance form”. She has certainly recruited an interesting bunch of collaborators. Nicholas Van Young, Dorrance’s co-choreographer, created the electronic tap boards which can be programmed so that when struck they can play notes and sound bites and hence the dancing itself creates a soundtrack. There’s a lively sequence in the second half where they illustrate this and each individual step acts as if striking a key on a keyboard instrument – the dancers bounce around their boards like kids who have discovered a terrific fun new game and are goading each other on.
The dancers all register strongly as individuals each with something different to contribute. Warren Craft is tall and has a refined, elegant minimalism to his movement. No matter how frantic the speed, he always looks cool and seems to reach the finale without breaking into a sweat. Others such as Byron Tittle and Gabe Winns Ortiz are happy to show you how much effort is involved, but also just how much fun they are having.
The dancers don’t just tap; they spin, glide and slide and slither, sometimes as if finding their feet on ice. They use a metal strip on some of the boards to experiment with rasping and scraping sounds. Dorrance herself can fire off bursts of steps at a furious pace but is even more impressive in her control when she takes the sound down to a merest whisper with the very slightest hint of movement. There is plenty of light and shade and contrasts within the work.
Much of this contrast is supplied by the b-girl Ephrat “Bounce“ Asherie. The tap dancers are all about the vertical, for them the floor is a percussive instrument, but for her the horizontal is her workspace. She can’t bear to tear her body away from the floor, and hates to be parted from it, always longing to get her hands or her back in contact with it again as if it provides some primal form of strength.
Everyone in the company including the three musicians, (sweet-voiced vocalist Aaron Marcellus, bassist Gregory Richardson and pianist Donovan Dorrance) gets a chance to shine at some point. Marcellus gets a solo spot where he shows us how some of the soundtrack is put together, singing a sequence, setting it up on a loop and then accompanying himself as an ecstatic one-man choir. This directness and willingness to show you how it is all done seems typical of the company: it doesn’t detract from the effect, it leaves you more impressed with their artistry and openhearted qualities.
The thunderous finale pulls all the threads together with the entire cast on stage playing and dancing in a riotous sonic adventure. The audience, initially not so reactive in the first half, had now been totally won over and many leapt to their feet in a wildly enthusiastic response. Let’s hope that Sadler’s Wells invites the company back soon.