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By Brian Seibert
Michelle Dorrance emerges as a choreographer
Last winter a gala for the Martha Graham Dance Company boasted guest stars from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre and also one tap dancer: Michelle Dorrance. Cheerfully comfortable with the potential comedy in her gangling limbs, she hunkered down into a spontaneous rhythmic conversation with her own digital echo—a conversation so fast, precise, and quick-witted that you might have wondered who could keep up with her other than herself.
At left: Photo of Dorrance by Matthew Murphy for Dance Teacher.
Dorrance’s presence on the bill was a sign of her stature, and virtuosic solo improvisation is how her kind of tap dancer usually gains attention. Yet when the 33-year-old won a Bessie Award in 2011, it was for the choreography she presented at Danspace Project in St. Mark’s Church that year. In 2012, she won the first award the Princess Grace Foundation had bestowed for tap choreography. This month, she will accept the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award at their gala (see sidebar).
This January, when she premiered her SOUNDspace at Danspace Project, it marked the first time that the institution had commissioned an evening-length work from a tap dancer. Both hard-core hoofers and connoisseurs of contemporary dance walked out of that show saying wow. “Such clapping! Such yelling!” reported Deborah Jowitt in her blog DanceBeat. “Every bit of it deserved.”
Why the fuss? Consider the two pieces cited by the Bessie committee. In Three to One, Dorrance sandwiched herself between two contemporary dancers. As light focused on their lower halves, the three bodies executed the same angular steps, pivoting their knees and crabwalking their heels and toes. Four bare feet flanked two metal-shod ones, and while they were all making rhythms, the choreography exposed dark emotions usually hidden in the mechanics of tap technique.
Remembering Jimmy was an homage to the late tap master Jimmy Slyde. A white-clad ensemble wearing socks sampled his namesake locomotion, scooting and skating, swishing and softly thudding in phrases that swung. Arranging a soloist’s steps into group formation can flatten their effect, but here the master’s cool was shaded into something ghostly, like an afterimage of his influence. The socks helped create the otherworldly hush, yet they were also pragmatic. The floor of St. Mark’s Church—like the floors in many venues—is off limits to tap shoes. (Three to One was danced on a portable tap mat.)
Remembering Jimmy, with Dorrance at right. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Danspace.
Bringing tap into the church of “downtown” dance was the mission of David Parker, who, as guest curator, gave Dorrance and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards a shared evening. “I had been looking for someone like Michelle,” says Parker, “someone who was dealing with tap in its full dimensions as dance—space, character—as well as music.”
Dorrance grew up in the tap-as-music camp. She joined Gene Medler and his excellent North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble when she was 8, performing at the tap festivals that were then sprouting around the country and abroad. The young Savion Glover, among other choreographers, set work on the ensemble, and Dorrance learned it from the inside, improvising solos within their structures.
But another influence was Dorrance’s mother, M’Liss, who ran the Ballet School of Chapel Hill and had danced with Eliot Feld. M’Liss introduced her daughter to Feld’s shows as well as to the range of options at the American Dance Festival, in nearby Durham, every summer.
Her soccer-coach father deserves credit, too. The tap choreographer Derick K. Grant calls Dorrance a great tap coach. “She pulls out miracles from young people,” he says. “I want the secret.”
It was with the Youth Ensemble that Dorrance learned to improvise musically, but Medler also gave her the first chances to choreograph. One solo was an explosion of teenage energy, a collection of shout-outs to her mentors set to the Beastie Boys’ “Flute Loop.” After Dorrance graduated from New York University, she returned south to make pieces for the ensemble. For one, she chose bluegrass music so that she could explore “character through virtuosity.”
She didn’t have much time to explore those possibilities as a choreographer. Savion Glover’s Ti Dii, Barbara Duffy & Company, RumbaTap, Manhattan Tap, Jazz Tap Ensemble, “Imagine Tap”—for much of the 2000s it was hard to find a tap company that didn’t at some point include Michelle Dorrance. Besides being busy, she feared appearing disloyal if she developed her own work. It took an invitation from Tony Waag, director of the American Tap Dance Foundation, to make her choreograph for her peers.
The piece was Music Box, and it was a kind of breakthrough. The music was by Regina Spektor, a singer-songwriter of Dorrance’s own generation. “At first it’s pleasing,” Dorrance explains, “and then it settles and it’s weird. I love anything like that—that isn’t what you thought it was.” Her dance caught that hard-to-place quality, the female dancers in summer dresses moving with some of the tomboy physicality that was becoming Dorrance’s signature.
That was in 2005. Not long after, she joined the rambunctious off-Broadway show Stomp and stayed for four years. “As much as that decision postponed my creating,” she says, “it taught me about group dynamics and it gave me a perspective on how I want my work to be received, a broader view of theater.”
It wasn’t until she got the offer from David Parker in 2010 that she asked for a month off from Stomp and got serious. She formed Dorrance Dance, a pickup company she’s trying to build into a full-time organization.
Then came the awards and more commissions. SOUNDspace, while sidestepping her attention to character, advanced her command of composition. Dorrance worked mostly a cappella. (“That was so painful,” she says.) By putting her dancers in socks and bare feet, leather soles and wooden taps, she could deploy them around and through the nave of St. Mark’s Church. By sometimes turning the lights off—an old gambit in tap—she forced you to follow their explorations by ear. Sound defined space.
A section of SOUNDspace. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy Danspace.
SOUNDspace tentatively furthered Dorrance’s incorporation of other dance forms. Conscious of tap’s historical connection with the lindy, breaking, and house dancing, Dorrance wants to reconnect tap with vernacular dance. Yet she knows that attempts to graft other movements—from ballet or modern—onto tap have often looked artificial, contrived. Natural, organic: those are her watchwords.
She’s also interested in throwing herself off balance, applying more effort than is necessary. “I’ll use a sharp angle,” she says, “to show how incredibly polyrhythmic single strokes can be, or have us barely move our feet to disguise the sound.”
Dorrance is becoming more aware, too, of the difference between solo and ensemble choreography. “Because we grow up as solo artists,” she says, “we want to push technically and rhythmically and set that on the group. But what’s going to be explosive on a group can be much simpler.” Choreography and improvisation can coexist, she believes; tradition can live in innovation.
“Sometimes we tap dancers,” says Grant, “can be hard critics, purists” who attack any peer attempting something new. “Michelle has figured out the balance, taking movement from contemporary dance while staying true to her tap roots. Most important, she’s not afraid of trying.” Parker agrees: “She’s fearless. She has no internal editor telling her what’s allowed.”
Meanwhile, she’s still trying to find time for explorations as a soloist that she hopes to continue for the rest of her life, whether “in a closet or on a stage.” Nothing is harder for her, she says, than choreographing a solo and sticking to it. “I try to remember my choreography, and then I get lost in the moment and…”
Brian Seibert writes about dance for The New York Times and The New Yorker.
Michelle’s Summer Outings
June 7–9: North Carolina Rhythm Tap Festival
June 15: Jacob’s Pillow Gala
July 9–12: New York City Tap Festival
July 24–28: Dorrance Dance, with a world premiere, Jacob’s Pillow
July 31–Aug. 1: Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Rhythm World
Aug. 2–3: The Yard, Martha’s Vineyard
Aug. 17: Prague City Tap Fest Concert
Aug. 22: Dubrovnik Tap Festival