Dorrance Dance – ETM: Double Down, Sadler’s Wells, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Tap dance has traditionally been the reserve of the nostalgic musical. In the West End right now, 42nd Street is the perfect evocation of this, its whole ensemble tap routines being the show’s biggest draw. On a smaller scale, Charing Cross Theatre’s Yank! includes several tap routines as it tells its story in the style of an old MGM musical.

But there is more to tap, and there always has been. Musical theatre has generally watered it down, even whitened it from its origins among 19th Century black America. But in its original form, one can see the origins of hip hop, breakdancing and pretty much every urban form of social dancing that has emerged since.

And it is a reclamation of this heritage, and reuniting tap with the forms that followed, that inspires this thrilling work by Michelle Dorrance’s dance company. There is something very powerful about how tap dancers produce their own percussion, how the shape their bodies must form is driven by the rhythms they wish to tap out. Dorrance’s ensemble plays with that, bringing in balletic movements or b-girl break-dancing. At one point, the tall, thin form of Warren Craft flails about like Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, his windmilling, falling form adding new texture to the standard tap rhythms.

But as much as tap traditionally provides the percussion, the use of electronics allow the company to provide the melodies, too. Specially constructed wooden blocks that play musical notes when struck with a tap shoe help provide a synthesis between tune and dancer. Sometimes these techniques provide a backdrop for a key performer to showcase their own solo moves; at other times, especially in one of the second act’s key pieces, all the instrument pads are lined up downstage, the ensemble tapping out melodies in a manner reminiscent of, but light years away from, the floor piano scene from Big.

Not all the music is derived from the dancing shoes, however. Under the musical direction of Dorrance’s brother Donovan, occasional use of drums and keyboards fill out the sound of the tap dancers. Most intriguing, though, is Aaron Marcellus’s use of live looping to build up a choral sound from his own voice alone.

Michelle Dorrance’s mission to reclaim tap dance from the clutches of Broadway nostalgia is an unmitigated success. ETM: Double Down demonstrates that not only does tap have the ability to sound and look modern, it is right there as the foundation for, and embedded in, everything we consider to be contemporary.

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