Review: The Singing Feet of Michelle Dorrance’s Dancers

Dorrance Dance — the company led by Michelle Dorrance, the most prominent and ubiquitous tap dancer today — made its first appearance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday. True to form, the troupe treated the theater (the small, adaptable BAM Fisher) as a musical instrument.

The show is called “Elemental” for good reason, but the first principle it establishes is elementary: This company of mostly tap dancers is its own band of musicians. Keyboard and bass might help establish a song (“All the Things You Are” to start), yet it’s the dancers who carry it, snapping their fingers and scatting the melody in time with their taps, their mouths clarifying what their feet are doing: singing the song.

Soon, they’re lying on their backs, without accompaniment. But the snaps are still going, and if you listen closely to the smack of their hands and elbows on the floor, you can hear that the song is still going, too. Dorrance Dance is teaching you to listen.

There’s nothing pedantic about this. “Elemental” is quick-paced fun. To explore the element of water, the dancers pop water balloons into troughs, then jump in and tap with bare feet, splashing and squeaking in rhythm. Wooden platforms turn out to be tubs — drums for the dancers to play from the inside, wet to the knees, enjoying the deep plunge and bounce of bass notes.

“Elemental” takes to the air as well — or at least to the lighting grid that covers the theater’s ceiling. The dancers scamper around up there like monkeys in a forest canopy, but they’ve characteristically rigged it with metal discs so that their every motion rings. As they did at the Guggenheim Museum last year, they’re playing the building.

The audience is seated on all sides, and the show, choreographed by Ms. Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young in collaboration with the other performers, is fully in the round. The formations seem to rotate almost continuously.

Circling is a natural form for this troupe: everyone’s included; no one’s out front for long. Even the two hip-hop dancers, Ephrat Asherie and Matthew West, and the breathtaking vocalist, Aaron Marcellus, join in the delightfully complex rhythm-making, all together or in counterpoint or sharing the beats in lightning-fast relay. Everyone gets solo moments, too, yet half the purpose of these is to set up the next solo, the next groove.

While this group ethic is appealing, it has something to do with the show’s surface-skimming limitations. The constant trading appears to come with a trade-off. This isn’t the kind of tap program that dives deep into any dancer’s soul. Instead, it rides on the edge of hokey (the snapping and scatting) and settles for cute (a bit of Esther Williams-style water ballet on dry ground).

Perhaps “settles” isn’t quite fair, though. Maybe Ms. Dorrance, tap’s only MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, need not always push boundaries. Her company is having a good time here, and after the misfire of her work for American Ballet Theater this fall, it’s good to see her back in her element, among her tribe, jamming with her band. Which one is she? The one with the fewest solos.

Dorrance Dance
Through Saturday at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn;

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