The history of tap dance is freighted with racism, sexism and suppositions about its lack of seriousness as a form. Michelle Dorrance, however, is in no doubt about the expressive power of her discipline, and her company’s first full-length show, ETM: Double Down, is a strange and subtle joy to behold.
The stage is rigged up with all sorts of responsive acoustic equipment, so that the tap of a foot on a soundboard sets off particular notes or reverbing wails. At one point we hear something like the chattering of a macaque. Although the opening sequence, in which the dancers scoot across the stage and drag the equipment around, feels a little unnecessary, the tech doesn’t detract from the tap.
ETM: Double Down isn’t a repository of starry, Astaire-style solos, but rather a celebration of difference in unity – the ensemble work is virtuosic and tightly-crafted, but retains a lyrical looseness that allows individual bodies room to move in their own way. There’s an excellent contrast between Dorrance’s elastic upper body and tremendously articulate feet, and the horizontal swerve and turbulence of single b-girl Ephrat Asherie, silently shod in Air Max. Then there’s long, lean and bald Warren Craft, a Lurch-like figure in a grey turtleneck who – when he’s not tapping in sync with his fellows – moves with disconcerting strangeness, like an elegant matador racked with the griping pains of IBS.
Tap dance isn’t known for its tenderness, but Dorrance Dance render shades of soft and sober emotion exquisitely. There’s a group number in which Dorrance is a perpetual outsider, shuffling delicately around the very perimeter of the stage, sometimes engulfed by a circling ensemble reminiscent of a hard-heeled corps de ballet. A wistful duet for two men, accompanied by soulful vocals, reveals more of tap’s sensitive capabilities: the chatter of their feet is like an anguished conversation, each line fighting for recognition, longing for harmony. But there’s sly wit and swagger too – and much more as yet untapped by the sparkling Dorrance and her dancers.
ETM: Double Down was at Sadler’s Wells until July 15th. For more details, including future dates, click here.