Dorrance Dance taps into Sadler’s Wells: a London tour to remember

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Dorrance Dance – Jungle Blues, Three to One, Myelination:  Sadler’s Wells, London, 16.11.2019. (CSa)

Dorrance Dance’s Myelination (c) Lynn Pleasant

Jungle Blues

Choreography – Michelle Dorrance
Music – Jungle Blues by Fred ‘Jelly Roll’ Morton/Branford Marsalis
Performed by Michelle Dorrance and all members of her troupe

Three to One

Choreography – Michelle Dorrance
Music – Nannou by Richard D. James, A Rat’s Nest by Thom Yorke
Performed by Michelle Dorrance, Byron Tittle and Matthew ‘Megawatt’ West


Choreography – Michelle Dorrance
Music – Prawn til Dante by Donovan Dorrance and Gregory Richardson
Lighting designer – Kathy Kaufmann
Performed by Michelle Dorrance and all members of her troupe

For many, the mention of tap dance will evoke monochrome memories of Hollywood movies: the ineffable elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the athleticism of Gene Kelly, the acrobatics of the Nicholas Brothers, or a Busby Berkeley choreographed kaleidoscope of arms and legs. As Michelle Dorrance and her extraordinary New York based troupe demonstrated during their whistle-stop visit to London’s Sadler’s Wells, tap has now evolved from traditional, theatrical hoofing into a startlingly original, contemporary form of jazz dance.

The show opened with two short but atmospheric routines. Jungle Blues, set to the Branford Marsalis recording of Jelly Roll Morton’s 1917 ‘Hot Style’ number, depicts a steamy New Orleans speakeasy. Through a haze of smoke, a group of louche drinkers, adopting a variety of erotic couplings or sensuous formations, slipped, slithered and seductively tapped out the music’s underlying rhythms or imaginatively inserted steps between the notes. Michelle and her troupe jelly legged their way through the music’s chugging baseline like a bunch of 1920s’ flappers, and responded to each improvised trumpet or trombone solo with witty, quick-footed improvisations of their own. We knew tap could be humorous, but who knew it could be sexy as well?

The first thing we see in Three to One, thanks to Kathy Kaufmann’s clever lighting, are three pairs of legs and feet spot-lit against a pitch-black stage. They belong to barefoot dancers Byron Tittle, Matthew ‘Megawatt’ West and standing between them, steel toed and well-heeled, the eponymous Michelle Dorrance. Three to One is their response to a musical soundtrack called Nannou by electronic musician Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, and a second piece, A Rat’s Nest by Radiohead’s former lead guitarist Thom Yorke. If you have never contemplated tapping to cutting edge experimental techno, imagine the graceful Tittle and dynamic West as hip-hopping bookends to the amplified sound of clicking clocks and bells. They peel away and disappear leaving Dorrance alone to embark on an expressive solo. As her shoes click-clack haltingly against the grain of the music, sadness and apparent desolation appear to consume her. Fear of passing time and loss perhaps? Moving in and out of a bright rectangle of light, she eventually cuts loose and recedes into the surrounding darkness, leaving just the echo of her shoes.

The final work in the programme, Myelination, drew on the force of the entire troupe. They danced to an adaptation of Prawn til Dante, played by a small onstage band which included Dorrance’s brother Donovan on piano and clarinet.  The choreography was complex and detailed but left space for improvisation, resulting in some breath-taking solos and ensemble team work which explored a wide range of emotions. Dorrance and Tittle clung to and swung from each other in ecstatic duet mode, a fine example of controlled spontaneity, while Warren Craft tapped, shuffled, dragged and scraped his amplified feet in a percussive explosion of sound.

The programme was short – 75 minutes in all – but it overflowed with innovation, intelligence, musicality and skill. It will live long in the memory.

Chris Sallon

For more about what is on at Sadler’s Wells click here.

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