If there’s one dance form that is missing from San Francisco stages, it’s tap dance. Yes, every once in a while, tap makes an appearance as part of a revue, musical or festival, but as a general rule, seeing tap on the concert stage here is pretty rare. And I do wonder why. Is it not currently on trend? Do folks question its seriousness or rigor? Does it face extra challenges when framed by a proscenium arch? In any event, it’s a shame. From old school stylings to more contemporary rhythm percussion, tap is exciting, fun and provides an artistic smorgasbord of visual and aural delights.
And no company does it better than New York-based Dorrance Dance, under the leadership of Founder/Artistic Director Michelle Dorrance. They have a winning formula – creative innovation, dynamic physical feats, engaging stage presence and feet that move at superhuman speeds. And even more impressive is how they make the space between movement and music vanish. Over the course of a Dorrance Dance show, the two disciplines marry and move forward together as a new “super” entity. This union was undeniable on Thursday night, as the company returned to San Francisco with ETM: Double Down, co-presented by SF Performances and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I left the theater feeling energized from the technical bravura and sonic patterns, and hopeful that our local stages will host more percussive dance in the future.
An eighty-minute, two-act octet featuring a constant stream of differing vignettes, ETM was brimming with collaboration. It was a compositional collaboration between Dorrance, company Associate Artistic Director Nicholas Van Young, Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and the company artists. It was a movement genre collaboration between Dorrance Dance’s tap vocabulary and Asherie’s street/breakdancing. And it was a musical collaboration where every flap, dig and stomp built rhythmic meters and score motifs alongside percussion, vocals and other instruments. On top of all that, there was still one more collaborative element unfolding in ETM, that between technology and live performance. ETM’s title is, of course a nod to EDM (electronic dance music), and the piece looks to create EDM’s real-time textured sampling in the percussive dance arena. To that end, Van Young devised a number of wired wooden platforms, both fixed and mobile, to react sonically to the various tap steps. It was like the cast was dancing on a live DJ board, where a single foot strike could also electronically conjure a digital piano, vibraphone or timpani roll. The impact was really something else. Not only was it completely cool, but it added yet another layer of sound.
As ETM went on, the collaborations continued to impress, as did so many other aspects of the production. For starters, the work avoided long improvisational stretches. I know tap has a rich history of improvisation and I do marvel at the skill, vulnerability and risk it takes to be a great improviser. But that doesn’t stop the questions and struggles I have about the connection between improvisation (something unplanned) and dance performance. So ETM’s shorter, structured improvs suited this viewer just fine. Dynamics were nuanced and varied throughout – high-powered, full-throttle sequences beautifully countered by subtle, chill moods and tones. From a choreographic standpoint, Dorrance Dance brought a wide swath to the table. As one might expect, call and response exchanges abounded, though plenty of surprising moments arose too. One duet, in particular, I would describe as tap partnering, a pas de deux complete with lifts and balances. Another section found a quartet, frenetically, but lightly, tapping on metal atop the wooden platforms; their staccato pulsing vibrations seemed to make the stage almost levitate. And the company itself! When it comes to rhythm, their talent and artistic acumen knows no bounds – tap, surely, but also body percussion, drumming and handheld percussive instruments. In addition, it was sheer delight that not a single second of angst showed up the entire evening. The ensemble’s enthusiasm was utterly contagious, filling and electrifying the air with ferocious joy.
ETM only had a couple of misses, both of them structural. Watching tap and breakdancing side by side was very engaging, whether the two genres were mirroring each other or sharing the uniqueness of their individual movement vocabularies. But it was a little curious that the collaboration appeared briefly in the first act and then disappeared altogether until act two. Featuring that dialogue primarily at the end of the dance affected its potential impact. I also wonder if ETM works as a two-part piece with an intermission in between. Not only does it read as a through-composed idea, but the energy couldn’t help but take a significant hit after the break. Having said that, ETM’s infectious spirit did eventually return, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in researching local tap classes following the show.