Tap It Out


Our Correspondents

The nonlogic of Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down.

Photo: Hayim Heron.

Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down. Photo: Hayim Heron.

Remember Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia in the movie Big, jumping around a supersize electronic keyboard on the showroom floor in FAO Schwarz? There’s a moment in Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down, just performed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance, that brings this to mind. Seven dancers line up on a keyboard comprising triggerboards all in a row. Triggerboards are, more or less, the uniting principle of ETM: Double Down. They’re musical tiles, perhaps a couple of feet square: both an instrument and a dance floor. Tapping on them with the foot produces notes, or other kinds of sounds, through a computer. During the course of the evening, the sounds and sequences produced by tap dancers on triggerboards are sometimes looped and played back, becoming canons or echoes, overlaying new, “live” sounds. 

In this particular sequence, each triggerboard produces a single note; each dancer has one triggerboard beneath each foot. Seven dancers in a line tap out a melody. It passes from one to another like a group of kids playing keep-away, quickly tossed along. Each note a dancer sounds is accompanied by particular movements, gestures, and expressions. They torque and turn and pose and grimace and mug. The wacky sequence repeats, the melody repeats, the wacky sequence shifts, the melody moves on. It’s a fast, jokey tour de force—an irresistible delight-producing machine.

ETM: Double Down comprises choreographic episodes strung together—more or less randomly, it appears, without development or connection, but with vaguely deepening emotional resonance. Other episodes include a tap improv duet for two men; a trio for three men on the triggerboard “keyboard”; several ensemble numbers; B-girl breaks by Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie; and vocal renderings—haunting unearthly songs without words—by Aaron Marcellus. The triggerboards are moved around, recombinant molecules offering opportunities to play with space, movement, and sound throughout the show.

In case you’re wondering, ETM stands for electronic tap music: a further evolution in the dance art defined by its dancers’ ability to produce their own sound track. Michelle Dorrance received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2015 for pushing the art in new directions—but ETM: Double Down is very much a joint enterprise, with passages of choreography improvised anew at each performance. Company member and collaborator Nicholas van Young shares equal billing for its creation, and he’s credited for original tap instrument design—he’s the technical wizard behind the triggerboards. Taken as a whole, the work is formally inchoate, at once riveting and evanescent, commanding full attention while it evaporates in a wisp of smoke. Even those who find this formlessness not entirely satisfying have to concede there’s genius in the sauce. I heard several people in the audience use the same word—amazing—at intermission, among them myself. Part of that is the dancers’ dizzying technique and their often lanky manner, the latter no doubt due in part to this mid-August heat wave. Another part is the weird mishmash of enterprising creativity that is Dorrance Dance’s MO—and part is probably, in the final analysis, the ballsy oddity of the show’s particular nonlogic.

Michelle Dorrance has a long history with Jacob’s Pillow, having first performed on their Inside/Out stage in 2004, reappearing their with her own work in 2011, and performing on their main stage with her company for the past three seasons. In 2014, Jacob’s Pillow Dance presented the premiere of ETM: Double Down’s predecessor, ETM: The Initial Approach. Jacob’s Pillow is surely the most winning of summer performing arts festivals. Funky, informal, cozy in scale, with its weatherworn performance space still called the “Barn” after the original structure, it’s situated atop a Berkshire mountain where the stars feel nearly within reach. Also, no air-conditioning. The audience soldiered on with thoughtfully supplied paper fans and water bottles; the dancers maintained their grace though drenched in sweat. At intermission, heat lightning proved a spectacle of its own. The sky rippled with light, Aurora Borealis–style, illuminating black thunderheads that may as well have been lifted from a Tibetan thangka. The deity who loaned them must have been beneficent: by the time the show broke, gentle rain had dropped the temperature by fifteen degrees as we crossed a dark field to our cars.

 Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.