The Music Center at Strathmore
North Bethesda, Maryland
March 2, 2018
I was lucky enough to catch a recent screening at the National Gallery of Art of two restored tap dance documentaries: No Maps on My Taps (1979) and About Tap (1985), both directed by George T. Nierenberg. I fell in love with the featured performers, who are all no longer alive: Chuck Green, Bunny Briggs, “Sandman” Sims, Jimmy Slyde, and Steve Condos. The films masterfully highlight the different personalities and styles of these tap legends. The one thing that binds all of these famous tappers together is their love of tapping, which shines strongly in their dancing and in their eyes as they talk about tap dance history. These films are a must-see for tap dance aficionados. They put me in the mood to see more tap, which luckily I could do in short order.
Not long after I saw the twin documentaries, Dorrance Dance appeared at the the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland. Dorrance Dance is proof that tap dance, despite earlier fears, is not dying, but flourishing. Yet, not surprisingly, tap dance today isn’t what it used to be. I was blown away by the moves of the tap dance elders I saw on film, and was equally blown away by the dancers’ wit, charm, and deep intelligence about music and dance. Michelle Dorrance’s dance company has wit and charm and shows deep intelligence about music and dance, too, but the experience of watching tap dance as concert dance is pretty far removed from the smoky jazz clubs where tap dance grew in popularity.
I’ve seen contemporary tap dance master Savion Glover perform in a cabaret setting, with tiny tables squeezed together in sweat-flinging distance from a tiny stage. The rhythms then were so close to my ears, I could practically feel the beats pulse through my body. The immediacy and excitement offered by an intimate venue like that suit tap dance well. In such a setting, you can’t help but feel connected to the performance.
Tap dance on a broad stage in a large venue, on the other hand, naturally feels more distant because it is. In Dorrance Dance’s performance of ETM: Double Down, created by Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, that distance was a detriment. The Dorrance Dance dancers all have unique personalities and styles, but from seats in a traditional theater, some of their individuality is lost. One result is that the dancers appear more as a cohesive ensemble rather than as a group of individuals, but that’s probably what being a part of Dorrance Dance is all about — working together. Why else would the dancers form a company?
At least in ETM: Double Down, though, the best moments were when the eight performers, wearing pedestrian clothes primarily in black and gray, broke out in solos or call and response type duets, where one could enjoy their particular contrasting styles. Dorrance, when she dances, often looks like a speed skater or runner, slightly bent forward, arms pumping out in front of her on attack. Guest artist Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie is an interesting addition, but one that I didn’t completely comprehend, as, in sneakers, she silently spins and tosses her body low to the ground like a breakdancer from the 1980s. She serves as a quiet echo to Dorrance’s mad tapping when the two dance together. Leonardo Sandoval doesn’t hesitate to go all the way onto his toes as if on pointe. Warren Craft, tall and pale and Gumby-like, when left to his own devices, dances like someone with a neurological disease. He jerks spastically and dramatically falls, slamming into the floor. If you saw him on the street, you’d reach out to help him. It’s a peculiar way to dance.
Dorrance Dance isn’t afraid of being peculiar. The company embraces creativity and very purposefully pushes the tap envelope, even when it’s not totally successful. In fact, watching ETM: Double Down is like watching a tap dance experiment. Some things work, some things don’t. Small pallets on which dancers tap, described in the program as “wooden drum pads,” are a fun invention that Young conceived. ETM: Double Down is serious and playful at the same time, and is a bit too controlled for my taste. Overall, the performance is kind of pristine where I longed for messiness and abandon.
The music for ETM: Double Down includes a trio of dancers playing drums (Michelle Dorrance, Craft, and Young). Percussion of the feet somehow translates into percussion with drumsticks. At one point, the dancers, in a line facing the audience, act like piano keys, jumping up and down. Dorrance’s brother Donovan, controllerist and on piano, and Gregory Richardson on bass/guitar, also get into the experimental, playful groove. The dancers’ tapping makes up a fractured conversation, and the musicians chime in, punctuating the exchanges. Frequently, the music loops and repeats, not unlike the tapping rhythms that come and go. Together the musicians and dancers create a variety of curious landscapes and vignettes. Aaron Marcellus provides lovely smooth vocals and a few gentle taps with his own feet as he sings. His sweet voice is a great accompaniment to a tender duet by Byron Tittle and Gabe Winns Ortiz. This pair of male dancers dances lyrically, holding hands or resting arms on each other’s shoulders, one sliding a foot between the other’s legs.
I kept waiting for everyone on stage to get looser and louder, and when it finally happened at the close of the performance, the uninhibitedness was too little too late for me. In the end, ETM: Double Down probably goes on too long and doesn’t add up to any one thing. While it artfully builds, it does so slowly, and the ultimate payoff isn’t huge. Nonetheless, I appreciate that Dorrance and her collaborators are headed somewhere new, and I’ll stay tuned to see where they go next.
Lastly, of note, there was a sign language interpreter at the front of the stage. This intrigued me, and I found myself watching her from time to time. What is it like to experience tap dance as a hearing impaired person? The interpreter seemed only to be conveying lyrics because she’d turn toward the stage and nudge her glasses back up her nose when just dancing was taking place. Surely for someone who is hearing impaired, a more intimate setting for tap would have a bigger impact.