Which came first, the music or the movement? This is the impossible riddle presented by Dorrance Dance in “ETM: Double Down,” the first of two programs the company is offering at Spoleto this year.
A creative venture between director Michelle Dorrance and instrument designer Nicholas Van Young in collaboration with B-girl Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and company dancers, “ETM: Double Down” premiered in 2016 but was years in the making.
From the start it’s clear this work is much more than concert dance with live accompaniment. As the lights come up a tall, spindly man slides slowly out from the wings with electrical cords draped over his shoulders dragging two wood panels. He’s followed by another man walking backwards, whose steps on the small wooden squares reverberate with rich tones. More dancers enter with these panels, each adding its own distinct note when touched until a melody is built and harmonized in real time. There’s no lag between step and sound, and rhythm and motion are so perfectly blended that “musicality” takes on a new meaning.
Dorrance’s innovative, genre-bending choreography not only has garnered prestigious awards but also brought tap back into the limelight. It's easy to see why: one moment she's moving with such lightness it's as if she's floating, her shoes tapping the floor so gently you wouldn't believe her feet were moving if not for their syncopated sounds. The next, she's barreling out from the wings, pounding hard as she hurdles across the stage, then sliding nearly the whole way back in the opposite direction with daring speed.
She utilizes every possible surface of the shoe, bending her ankle at a near-90-degree angle to hit the outer edge of her foot squarely against the floor. With complete control, Dorrance pushes past all boundaries, and leads her talented company to do the same.
It’s difficult to parse this production into distinct movements; each builds off the last seamlessly and what is remembered are stunning snapshots within a spellbinding sea of rhythm. One such moment comes in the second act when two male dancers share a rare duet. We see the most physical contact in the production between these two as they support each other with the utmost care, and each breakaway for what appears to be improvised solos, keeping total eye contact with the other as they show a hardness not seen before.
When one dancer exits the audience erupts in cheers, but it’s seeing the other left alone center stage, back turned, that adds poignancy to an otherwise lighthearted partnering.
In addition to all the dancers sharing time on the tonal boards, Dorrance, Van Young and Warren Craft, a fellow company member, man the drums and percussion, and the group is accompanied intermittently by a pianist, vocalist and bassist-guitarist who all join in the tapping by the final, showstopping number which garnered a standing ovation before the lights came back up.
Don’t let the label fool you: this production goes far beyond the limits of dance and simply cannot be missed.
Reviewer Lily Watkins is a dancer and dance instructor in Charleston.