A strong tailwind of promise accompanied Dorrance Dance across the Atlantic. A different kind of show was on its way to Sadler’s Wells, for the first time. It was tap, but not as we know it. The Dorrance reputation was for pushing the boundaries of tap dancing far away from the glamour of Hollywood musicals and the bravura of vaudeville. Contemporary tap; tap electronica; compositional tap. “Tap to the max”, they called it. It even came with an acronym - ETM; but what does it mean?

© Hayim Heron
© Hayim Heron

ETM: Double Down is certainly different. It’s more like a concert - a tap gig for these days of the Gig economy - where dancers double up as the musicians; performing, for large tracts of act one, on their own individual pedestals, raised to differing heights, as if they were the Arctic Monkeys. They also danced, routinely, on small electronic trigger boards, each one plugged in to the sound system, both amplifying the tap dance and triggering the accompanying sound, creating a synergy of percussion in a manufactured alignment of dance and electronic music.

The show is the product of a creative fusion between Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Young, both of whom dance and make music, but if you flip the coin, Dorrance is more the dancer, and Young, the instrument (or, perhaps, to be more strictly accurate, the maker of the compositional instrument). But, this idea of two halves of the same coin begins to lose currency when you realise that it is the sophistication of Dorrance’s choreographic phrasing that is creating the music from the synthesised systems that Young has engineered; and that the sound designer is both dancing and making music, simultaneously.

Having considered a raft of possibilities (Electronic Ticket Machine, Enhanced Thematic Mapper or even the international airport code for an Israeli airport) it suddenly occured to me, halfway through the work, that ETM stands for Electronic Tap Music; so, not only, is this show different but it’s also invented an acronym. Full marks for innovation.

© Christopher Duggan
© Christopher Duggan

The lack of set, other than those moveable platforms, gave this show the feel of a flamenco tablao; an aura intensified by both the ubiquitous percussive footwork and the almost combative flow of energy that passed through the eight dancers, whether performing impressively in unison, or passing the creative baton, one to another. This latter emphasis brought the idea of a street battle to mind and it was a clever move to break up the tap dancing with Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie’s slick breakdancing, peppered with impressive b-boy spins. Her solos were a highlight of the show, and whilst looking forward to these new developments in electronic tap, it also somehow revered the roots of both tap and hip hop; both of which emerged raw from North American streets.

The show started slowly and took a while to build. The second act was certainly more dynamic and versatile, set against the sameness of the opener. A soft-shoe flavour permeated several dances with scraping slides much in evidence. The percussive playground moved beyond drums and amplified feet to huge linked chains that were smashed against the boards as the work escalated to a visceral climax.

Dorrance is the group’s charismatic lead, using her whole body as an expressive instrument, despite the focus being on her feet. Young moves surprisingly lithely for a big, powerful guy. With his full beard, tousled hair and flapping denim shirt, this Texan (long since relocated to New York) looks more like a barman than a dancer; that is, until he dances!

Elizabeth Burke was the third of an impressive trio of women dancers, and another charismatic performer who looked as if she had just stepped off Rosebery Avenue - still wearing everyday, tight-fitting, grey-green chinos - for an impromptu jamming session. And, in a very real sense, that is how ETM: Double Down seemed. Not so much a concert, more an improvisational jam (although clearly every sequence was carefully structured).

It had significant highlights but some of the repetitive movement, smooth though it was, lost the key attribute of remaining arresting. When Gregory Richardson played a double bass and then stopped while the untouched instrument continued to play on, it captured that uncertainty between real and recorded sound. I tried to individualise the taps of Burke and the excellent Brazilian dancer, Leonardo Sandoval, and it was difficult to match the sound to the movements of their feet.

To “double down’ means to double a wager (it’s a term that has its origins in Blackjack). Here, one assumes that it signifies a doubling of the impact of tap through electronic enhancement. Dorrance and Young have produced a show that has a clear fascination, borne, especially, out of their innovative approach; but for pure entertainment it was a mixed bag. The highs were dynamic; the lows, rather sedative, but overall - enhanced by a better second act - the highs just about won this double down.