As a 2015 MacArthur Fellow, tap dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance earned the title of “Genius,” but the mad scientist behind her latest creation “ETM Double Down,” presented by the Chicago Human Rhythm Project and the Chicago Humanities Festival for a weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art, is Nicholas Young. Young, a Bessie Award winner and founding member of Dorrance Dance, created specialized instruments responding to touch. Essentially, Young created a series of synthesizable drum pads, whose sounds can be altered by a computer. Let seven skilled tappers out to play, and you’ve got a magnificent game of Simon, a synthesized drum set, a live band controlled by the feet of the dancers.
Split into two acts, ETM is not a narrative or linear journey exactly. Its series of vignettes uses these amplified surfaces in myriad ways to celebrate old-school electronica (ETM = electronic tap music). The evening is supported by live music (drum set, bass and vocals), plus a DJ/mixer figure tucked back in the corner of the stage, plus B-girl Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie dancing with and apart from the tap dancers (sometimes in tap shoes) and some extra percussive elements like chains and grated metal sheeting. That sounds like a lot of elements – and it definitely is – but the transitions in and out of hip hop and music and tap are handled with care and felt more natural, less jolting, less of a gimmick than I thought it would be.
Young’s creations, however, are the pulse of this piece, anchor the performance, and the element that speaks most closely to ETM’s electronica theme.
Watching the dancers tap out their accompaniment on these foot pads, it’s as though they don’t actually know what’s about to happen; they are as playful as Tom Hanks in “Big” discovering the foot piano in FAO Swartz for the first time. That was refreshing, particularly knowing that Dorrance and Young have been working with this material since 2014. But if the novelty has worn off, none of us could tell.
Chicago audiences are used to many flavors of tap. Chicago Human Rhythm Project (CHRP), Chicago Tap Theatre, and Jump Rhythm Jazz Project offer wholly different schools of thought and aesthetics. Add to the mix more experimental choreographers like Tristan Bruns, Bril Barrett, and Jumaane Taylor, and we’ve got a full spectrum of ways to experience the form. But while Dorrance and Young have both worked with and for CHRP in the past, ETM is getting at something different and new. Maybe it’s those innovative tapping pads, or Dorrance’s interminglings with B-girl Asherie and vocalist Aaron Marcellus (who dominates the first half of the second half)…. No, that’s not it. Maybe it’s the wholly equal marriage of music and dance or something about the quality of Michelle Dorrence’s movement. I can’t put my finger on exactly why Dorrance’s aesthetic is different, other than to point out that much if not most of experiencing tap dancing is about appreciating what it sounds like. That is certainly key here, too, but “ETM Double Down” is also visually striking. The transitions, the costumes, and the dancers’ movements seem planned higher than the ankles, which is not always the case with tap performance in general. Dorrance’s stylizations and gestures show a level of restraint not always present in the form, giving more of a purpose to each step than its sound. It’s a risk, honestly, to put all these things together and make them work, but “Double Down” is a double down I can get down with.