I learned a new term last night: “body percussion.” If you’re thinking, “Hot date!” get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about music — percussive acoustics well beyond the cymbals, snares, and bass pedals of an expertly played drum set, created by little more than bodies in motion. New York-based tap artist Michelle Dorrance and her insanely talented troupe Dorrance Dance rattled and grooved Memminger Auditorium with their performance of SOUNDspace.
If you were to close your eyes at a Dorrance Dance performance, you’d be hard pressed to figure out what was creating the vibrant rhythms reverberating throughout the theatre. And that’s precisely what Dorrance achieves by beginning the show lights out. In total darkness, you hear single footsteps trace their way across and around the stage, the echoes mapping the spatial dimensions of the theatre. Then come stomps, rumbles, clattering, chattering, knee slaps, claps, from the stage below and from the theatre’s recesses, the audience robbed of visual crutches in the pitch blackness. The effect is riveting, as ears perk up to the mysteries of the sounds at hand.
As spotlights slowly rise, you make out the forms of dancers wearing casual street clothes, hoofing it in nothing but socks. Socks? All that sound created by people in socks? Not athletic socks, but the type a Charleston attorney might don (just imagine courthouse tapping sessions in nothing but boxer briefs and Brooks Brothers shin-high silks — now that I would like to see). Not since Tom Cruise slid into the hallway in Risky Business in his tighty whities and tube socks have dorky knee-highs been so provocative.
The evening grows in dimensions of sound, first with socked and bare feet, then leather soles, then taps. With no musical accompaniment but itself, the group taps, slides, skips, gallops, scampers, and struts, sometimes in powerful unison, sometimes in layered syncopation.
Young, feisty, and spryly athletic, Michelle Dorrance herself often takes center stage, her energy and love for her medium absolutely infectious, but she also deflects the spotlight onto her brilliant prodigies. Warren Craft shines in an improvised conversation between his two feet which shift between chatty dialogue and outright argument, both with each other and with the body they support, defiant entities all their own.
Upright bassist Greg Richardson adds the resonance of strings, the strident screech of his bow, and deep reverb, as Dorrance improvises to a Bassa Nova groove. She drags her heels, slides her feet, flutters up onto her toes, arms flailed back, contrasting the subtleties of self-restraint or suspended movement against the intoxicating clamor of her rapid-fire footwork. Dorrance is without question the queen of the modern tap movement.
Yet another funky layer of sound is created when two spotlighted dancers shuffle and scrape in resin (or sand), a Vaudevillian tradition that creates a fantastically gritty backdrop to the rhythms of the dancers in the foreground.
The evening culminates in the percussive genius of Nicholas Young who effectively achieves a “drum solo” with nothing but himself: rubbing his hands together, clapping, knee slapping, chest drumming, snapping, tongue clucking, foot stomping, then pounding and slapping the wooden stool on which he sits like he’s playing an African djembé. This leads into an acoustic call-and-response with dancers lining the audience walkways. By the time Young exits the stage, the audience can’t contain its applause. The dancers stomp and tap in a frenzied percussive finale that brought us all to our feet.
As I exit the auditorium, still smiling, an elderly gentleman behind me remarks, “That girl was the Energizer Bunny!” Memminger’s bleachers rattle with audience members attempting to tap. Ladies shuffle onto the stage to test out the sounds of their expensive heels on wood.
Everyone appears to be completely impressed and elated by the performance, until I hear a man mutter wryly, “That was a great fifteen minute show that lasted over an hour.” I realize that although I myself was on the edge of my seat the entire time, it’s impossible to please everyone. I was tempted to suggest he strip down to his socks and try it himself, perhaps shuffle his way straight back to his hotel.
Another Dorrance Dance performance titled Delta to Dusk incorporates music in the form of blues, bluegrass, pop and rock, with world class vocalist Aaron Marcellus. Not to be confused with SOUNDspace but equally riveting, Delta to Dusk showings are June 2 at 8 p.m., June 3 at 7 p.m., June 5 at 8 p.m., and June 6 at 8 p.m.