There’s so much innovation and cross-referencing in contemporary dance right now that it’s almost more unusual to see a company that’s devoted to a pure version of one genre than it is to see things mashed up. With Dorrance Dance, the group that performed for UCSB Arts & Lectures at the Granada Theatre last Wednesday, you get both. The first half of the program, “SOUNDspace” (2013) was about as pure as you can get — it used no music other than tapping feet and body percussion. After intermission, the same dancers came back, accompanied by musicians and fascinating technology for a new work called “ETM: Double Down.” It was just as extreme but in the opposite direction, mixing not only dance styles but also sound sources, roles, and genres. Taken together, these works served to indicate the immense range of imaginative possibilities that Michelle Dorrance and her company are bringing to contemporary dance through tap.
From an early segment, in which only the dancers’ lower legs were lit, to a late sequence involving the sounds made by dropping large chains, “SOUNDspace” threw off one surprise after another. Michelle Dorrance’s solo alone would have made the entire evening worthwhile, but there was so much more to see and enjoy that even that highlight eventually disappeared in the mind’s rearview mirror. In part, the consistency with which this tap-only piece held one’s attention had to do with the constantly shifting array of styles exhibited, almost like a history of tap in miniature. But the other charming thing about it was how tuned in the dancers had to be to the acoustics of the Granada. By performing in the room and pounding on that stage, they turned the hall itself into an instrument, and it sounded incredible.
“ETM: Double Down” is a collaboration with Nicholas Van Young, a dancer who is also an inventor of musical instruments. The piece involves special tap boards constructed with contact mics that act as triggers for various digital samples and effects. If it sounds complicated, well, it probably is from the point of view of making it, but in the audience, what it created was simple and remarkably coherent — a fascinating band with percussionists and instrumentalists who participate in the music making by tapping their feet. Singer Aaron Marcellus really upped the game of the ensemble, and the sound they were able to create was stunning.