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Dorrance Dance marked the return of dance performance to Penn Live Arts with its first live, in-person event since January 2020. Formerly the Annenberg Center Presents, Penn Live Arts announced a name change in summer 2021, around the time that the Pennsylvania Ballet rebranded as the Philadelphia Ballet. I attended one of the venue's final pre-pandemic dance events, and it was great to be back at the Zellerbach Theater. Virtuoso tapping combined with unexpected elements to make Dorrance Dance a night to remember.
Celebrating its 10th anniversary this season, Dorrance Dance is a New York-based tap company led by Michelle Dorrance and composed of dancers and musicians—including Dorrance’s multi-instrumentalist/composer sibling Donovan—from around the world. Its lineup is one of the more diverse I have seen in professional dance, with performers reflecting a variety of genders, races, ethnicities, body types, and backgrounds. Dorrance Dance aims to grow tap dance in various directions simultaneously, from the jazz club to the concert stage to the music festival to TV, movies, and Broadway. At Penn Live Arts, it accomplished that through an expansive program of two works from the company’s early days, SOUNDspace (2013) and Three to One (2011), and two local premieres, Basses Loaded (2019) and An Ella’quent Holiday Swing (2021).
SOUNDspace introduced the dancers and the company, performed mostly without music to highlight the percussive rhythms of the footwork. Three dancers mounted a platform equipped with a special surface and microphones to capture the sound of their steps. Kathy Kaufmann’s evocative lighting, a delight throughout the performance, initially portrayed the dancers as moving shadows. As the light intensified, their figures emerged: two women and a man stomped out a synchronous beat before taking turns soloing while the others maintained the rhythm.
Next, trios of dancers tapped in rectangles of light near the edge of the stage. Their faces and upper bodies were in darkness, keeping the focus on their legs and feet. Their moves became increasingly complex and difficult, full of lightning-speed shuffles, buffalos, and Cincinnatis that sounded the beat in perfect unison. In another section, dancers moved diagonally across the stage, tapping the entire time. One slid on his foot to produce a sound akin to a record scratching. The sound changed again when dancers changed their shoes.
Leonardo Sandoval’s solo incorporated other elements of percussion, including snaps, hand claps, and slaps on his belly, chest, and thighs to punctuate the rhythm of his footwork. When a musician mounted the platform behind him and began playing an upright bass, it took the alchemy of live dance to new heights. Hip-hop dancers Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie and Matthew “Megawatt” West joined the bassist before SOUNDspace’s dramatic finish. The novel combination of tap and hip-hop dance is surprisingly effective, and Asherie and West pair well. A particularly compelling performer, Asherie creates the illusion of bonelessness through kinetic movement.
Three to One and Basses Loaded
The next piece further demonstrated Dorrance Dance’s range. Performed by a trio of dancers to recorded music by Richard D. James and Thom Yorke, Three to One drew from lyrical dance, which blends ballet, jazz, and other styles to emphasize expression and emotion. Michelle Dorrance danced in shoes, flanked by Byron Tittle and West, who performed barefoot. Interesting costumes by Dorrance and Mishay Petronelli resembled form-fitting, partial togas in dark hues. Kaufmann’s innovative use of shadows enhanced West’s and Tittle’s lithe movements as well as the piece’s moody tone. As Three to One drew to a close, the dancers seemed to be sucked in and out of darkness as they moved upstage and downstage.
In Basses Loaded, instruments with wireless microphones allowed musicians to move among the dancers to heighten the interplay between them. Michelle and Donovan Dorrance played electric bass, while Kate Davis and Gregory Richardson played double bass using both their fingers and bows. The pizzicato finger plucking established a hypnotic beat, and the bows generated a sometimes-spooky, cello-like sound. While Basses Loaded included great dancing from Elizabeth Burke, Luke Hickey, Sandoval, and Tittle, the basses were the real stars. It was especially fun to see the musicians move around the stage in sync with each other.
A celebration of the future
A holiday number inspired by the music of Ella Fitzgerald rounded out the program. A delightful crowd-pleaser, An Ella’quent Holiday Swing combined the company’s strengths in dancing and music with terrific vocals by Aaron Marcellus. “Good Morning Blues” showed off Marcellus’s expressiveness and impressive range. This tune, along with “Brighten the Corner Where You Are” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” suggested the mixed emotions many experience around the holidays, especially with Covid-19 variants spreading, vaccination rates stagnating, and hospitalizations rising again. The piece also included favorite Christmas carols and welcome bits of humor, such as a cute reindeer scene in which a dancer wearing a red face mask portrayed Rudolph. Full of shim shams, breakdancing, and scat singing, the festive fun of An Ella’quent Holiday Swing will warm even the Grinch-iest heart.
As patrons took their seats before the show, I overheard a conversation between guests seated in a nearby row. Interest in tap dance had brought a senior couple and a pair of high-school students to Dorrance Dance. Witnessing their conversation reinforced the unique power of seeing live performance with others, a shared experience that can make memories with loved ones and forge connections between strangers. With its distinctive combination of music, tap, and other forms of dance, Dorrance Dance is a dynamic company that will inspire and entertain a wide variety of viewers as it looks to the future of tap dancing.
What, When, Where
The 10th anniversary season opener of Dorrance Dance. Choreography by Michelle Dorrance, in collaboration with company dancers. $29-$84. December 10-11, 2021, at the Zellerbach Theater of Penn Live Arts, 3680 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. pennlivearts.org or dorrancedance.com.
Masks, proof of Covid vaccination, and a completed PennOpen Campus Green Pass screener are required to attend.
Penn Live Arts offers wheelchair-accessible seating, free admission for personal care attendants, large-print programs, and assistive listening devices. Visit the venue’s accessibility page for more info.
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