Michelle Dorrance’s latest iteration of her exploration of tap-dance-meets-electronic-music, ETM: Double Down, is an often mind-blowing live art experience. In moving pieces (and people) alone, there’s a lot going on here: electronic tap boards that broadcast musical notes when danced upon (a creation of Nicholas Van Young, one of the dancers); a mix of dance genres, tap and break dancing; structured improvisation and carefully choreographed ensemble movement; musicians who double as dancers (or is the other way around?). It can be, at times, too much—but it is mainly thrilling.
If you’re having trouble imagining Van Young’s sound boards, try picturing the piano from the movie Big that Tom Hanks jumps on. (That’s obviously a reductive definition of what Van Young has created, but the analogy works.) Modulation, as skillfully evidenced by the dancers, is key.
The piece is less successful when moments of drama are, say, layered on top of a coupling. The movement itself (and the myriad sounds we’re hearing) are enough for us as audience members to imbue what’s happening onstage with our own imagined meanings. We don’t need more context—it can quickly feel like overkill, bordering on melodrama.
On Tuesday evening, a couple of technical problems slipped in. It’s understandable, of course, but can also be disquieting to the audience—with so much gadgetry being manipulated so skillfully, it’s easy to trust that the people onstage are true professionals and uncomfortable jarring when things go awry. It certainly takes you out of the atmosphere so carefully crafted by Dorrance when a looping machine seems to malfunction.
One of Dorrance’s foremost talents is having the foresight to let her dancers be who they are. Warren Craft, a tall, slender dancer with a shaved head, is given ample time in an early solo to explore an aesthetic that feels surprising and new—a willingness to incorporate unexpected spills into his choreography, in percussive and riveting ways, and an idiosyncratic port de bras in which even his hands are constantly engaged. And of course, Dorrance is her own torrent of movement, impossible to look away from, with staccato and silky smoothness constantly coexisting. Some of the piece’s finest moments occur when we as audience members can’t tell if something’s been choreographed or if we’ve just viewed a revelatory improvisation. That ambiguity is what kept me watching so actively.
Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, a guest artist of this ambitious program, is a welcome, additionally genre-breaking addition. Asherie is a breakdancer who flits in and out of much of the second half of the program, bringing an enthusiasm and energy level that raises that of everyone else onstage.
But even with the inclusion of Asherie and the technology, the singing (by Aaron Marcellus), the solos— there is too much to digest and the work is too long. One can definitely marvel at Dorrance’s sheer ability to generate movement and music and theme, but the result of so much at once is a rawness undercutting what we see.
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