Tap artist Brenda Bufalino argues it’s time to rethink the way we write about tap.
Dorrance Dance is stretching the boundaries of tap with their theatricality and virtuosity. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow.
Critics are always forecasting the next decline of tap dancing. In one instance, a 2011 review in The New York Times, Claudia La Rocco wrote, “Tap is unquestionably a great American art form. It is also unquestionably in dire straits.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is a thrilling moment for tap. Never before have dancers been so skilled in technique and capable of such tour de force in a myriad of styles. Our concert theaters are filling up, for the unique choreography and ensemble tap of Dorrance Dance and Max Pollak’s RumbaTap in New York; Acia Gray’s Tapestry Dance Company in Austin, Texas; and Mark Yonally’s Chicago Tap Theatre. Tony Waag’s “Tap City” in New York hosts hundreds of dancers from around the world. Yet writers and critics persist in approaching tap dance as a novelty, investigating its origins as if it were a relic just discovered, a dying art soon to be buried again.
When writers cover other forms of dance they speak about the particulars that make up a satisfying performance. They are equipped to reference past works and compare specific dances from a choreographer’s repertory. In contrast, tap dance to date has been written about as if it were a folk dance. Many critics have created a hierarchy of authenticity that keeps tap dancers competing on the street corner.
Wouldn’t it be helpful to share with the public the subtleties and techniques of tap dance? For instance, a writer might reveal the composition of the band, and how the dancer collaborated with their chosen musicians. Were the taps clear and tonal? Was the approach to the floor hard-hitting and loud, or melodic and subtle? Could the dancer modulate between syncopated phrasing, continuation 8th note triplets, and sixteenth notes with ease? Did the dancer phrase melodically, or have the hard punch and short phrases of a drummer?
Chicago Tap Theatre’s show, “We Will Tap You!” celebrated the music of Queen. Photo by Josh Hawkins, Courtesy Chicago Tap Theatre.
Dancers strive to create with their own unique voice. Can the reviewer recognize and differentiate between the hard hitting, hip-swinging style of Syncopated Ladies, the high-flying slides and gleeful elevation of Joseph Wiggan and the funk/jazz fusion style of Jared Grimes? What about Michelle Dorrance’s dramatic sense of building entrances and fast exits?
Unfortunately, many of those who presently write about tap and review performances have not done their research. This lack of understanding often has catastrophic results for artists seeking financial support and recognition.
There is also the notion that tap dance is a solo form. In a 2004 New Yorker review, Joan Acocella wrote, “At its best [tap] uses improvisation, and you can’t make group patterns if everyone is doing his own thing. From this limitation—solo improvisation—comes tap’s great strength, its status as an act of personal heroism: naked, here-I-stand. Nevertheless, the limitation is a limitation, emotionally and commercially.” This idea would dismiss the great variety acts of Coles & Atkins; Pete, Peaches & Duke; The Miller Brothers; The Madison Trio and countless others. It also dismisses the vitality of a tap renaissance that began in the 1970s with groundbreaking companies like the Jazz Tap Ensemble and the American Tap Dance Orchestra. They created a brand new form of concert tap dance for their ensembles, interspersing solo and group improvisation with composed, highly choreographed dances. This form, similar to that of jazz ensembles, is still employed by tap companies and soloists.
Syncopated Ladies’ video to Beyoncé’s “Formation” went viral. Photo Courtesy Chloe & Maud Productions.
Today, inspired by the Dorrance Dance theatricality and virtuosity, many new choreographers are bravely stretching the boundaries of tap. It is thriving internationally as far as India, where Jason Samuels Smith performed with the late kathak master Pandit Chitresh Das, and Germany, where Thomas Marek and Sebastian Weber create unique conceptual tap works. Festivals throughout the U.S. have been running for a decade or longer.
Tap dancers are the entrepreneurs of the dance world. If there isn’t a venue to be found then one will be created, in a club, at a wedding, in a festival, as a guest artist with the Philharmonic or grooving with the band at Dizzy’s Jazz Club. Through the dedication and passion of its dancers, tap will continue to thrive.
Brenda Bufalino is a tap dancer, choreographer and teacher.
A past event at the famed Guggenheim rotunda. (Photo by Robert Stolarik via The New York Times)
Though New York City's Guggenheim Museum is principally a destination for modern- and contemporary-art enthusiasts, its dance programming seems to be getting beefier each season. This week, details were released for two site-specific events we're practically drooling over. Tapper extraordinaire Michelle Dorrance and American Ballet Theatre pyrotechnic wonderboy Daniil Simkin will perform in the museum's iconic rotunda. Though the commissions won't happen until 2017, we can't wait to see how they use the towering, circular, multi-level space designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Here's a look at what you can expect dance-wise at the Guggenheim within the next year—and how you can relive past events online.
Michelle Dorrance is at it again. Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy Dorrance.
Plan Ahead: As part of the Guggenheim's Works & Process Rotunda Projects, Dorrance is choreographing a piece that will turn the space's spiraling ramp into a stage. Picture tap dancers scattered throughout the ramp, and just think how those percussive rhythms will resonate. Premieres February 16, 2017.
Simkin's self-directed side troupe INTENSIO will perform in the same space in a work by Alejandro Cerrudo, but you'll have to shift your perspective for this one. The audience will be dispersed along the ramp so they can view the dance from above. Special projections will accompany the choreography and appear on the rotunda's floor and white spaces. Premieres September 2017.
Coming Soon: The Guggenheim's regular Works & Process series, which presents conversations with artists and excerpts of new works at the museum's Peter B. Lewis Theater, has several notable dance events on its fall lineup. If you're a student under 25, you may be able to snag $10 rush tickets an hour before each show.
September 18, Kate Weare Company in Marksman. Six dancers explore the intuitive senses that help us survive.
October 31, Jonah Bokaer's Rules Of The Game. Preview the multidisciplinary work, which features a score by Pharrell Williams, in advance of its November New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
NDT dancers in León and Ligthfoot's Stop-Motion. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy NDT.
November 15, Nederlands Dans Theater. Choreographic duo Sol León and Paul Lightfoot discuss their craft, and NDT performs excerpts of U.S. premieres by León and Lighfoot, Marco Goecke, and Crystal Pite.
November 20, Juilliard Dance Division. Preview new works that John Heginbotham, Katarzyna Skarpetowska, Pam Tanowitz and Matthew Neenan have created for students from The Juilliard School. The dancemakers will be on hand to chat about their creative process.
December 3–5, 9–11, Peter and the Wolf. Fashion maven Isaac Mizrahi returns to narrate the classic tale set to imaginative choreography by Heginbotham and live music.
Look Back, Watch Now: If you're not in the New York area or just can't wait until these dance events ramp up, check out the Works & Process at the Guggenheim's YouTube channel. From Broadway to ballet, it's stocked with footage from the past several years' events.
When I tell people that I'm an editor at Dance Magazine, one of the first questions I am asked is usually something along the lines of, "So, how does '25 to Watch' work?"
ABT's Sterling Baca and Dance Theatre of Harlem's Nayara Lopes on the January 2016 cover. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
It starts with a lot of dance viewing. And I mean all year long. In fact, as we move into the winter dance season, we're already keeping our eyes out for talents to recognize in 2017. Once summer hits, we start asking staff editors and our trusted writers across the world to give us their recommendations. Who is about to have a breakout year? What makes them a standout? Why do we need to talk about them right now?
Our team then sits down and sifts through hundreds of nominations. We talk about the people who we are most interested in, we go see more shows and we dig up all the videos and press about those dancers that we can. Eventually, painstakingly, we whittle the list down to 25.
Hee Seo. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Admittedly, sometimes we miss talents—they explode so quickly onto the dance scene that they outgrow the "to Watch" list before they even make it on. But generally, our track record is on point. We picked out Hee Seo, now an American Ballet Theatre principal, when she was just a Studio Company member in 2006; and Akram Khan, long before he became a go-to choreographic collaborator and internationally successful solo artist, in 2002; and Michelle Dorrance, in 2005, 10 years before she received this year's MacArthur "genius" Award.
So, it is with great pleasure that we share our list for 2016. (Click here to get digital access now.) I don't doubt that a few years from now, we'll be looking back and writing about them with the same pride.
An eclectic mix of artists reenvisions Martha Graham’s Lamentation.
PeiJu Chien-Pott in Lamentation. Photo by Hibbard Nash Photography, Courtesy MGDC.
They’re choreographers you would never expect to see sharing a bill with Martha Graham: Modern dancer Kyle Abraham, tapper Michelle Dorrance, contemporary abstractionist Liz Gerring and Sonya Tayeh of “So You Think You Can Dance.” But each has created their own version of her historical work Lamentation to premiere during Martha Graham Dance Company’s season at The Joyce Theater, February 10–22. “Lamentation was a radical departure from what had come before, stripping everything away and representing the essence of emotion,” says artistic director Janet Eilber. “That seismic shift still resonates today.”
The project, Lamentation Variations, began in 2007 as a way to commemorate September 11. Come this season, MGDC will have 12 Variations in its repertoire. Eilber hopes that the range of choreographers participating this year—part wish list, part kismet—will bring something new to the Graham repertoire and grow MGDC’s audience by making the 85-year-old Lamentation more accessible.
Some of the choreographers feel like a natural fit. For instance, Kyle Abraham has built his Variation from his Graham and Cunningham training. “There’s a fear of doing too much of a derivative. I’m giving a nod to the technique, but allowing it to be my take,” says Abraham. “Knowing that Merce had studied with Graham, I found myself wanting to pair Cunningham curves and Graham contractions.”
Other choreographers’ works, like Dorrance’s, will introduce a new style to the Graham aesthetic. “I am not using tap dance as an acute technique in this work, but I am using its foundation,” says Dorrance. “This opportunity allows me to branch out and apply the way I see rhythm as a driving force for non-percussive dancers.
What would Martha think about all of this? “As we move forward on all of our experiments, I believe she’s cheering us on,” says Eilber. “She was all about the future.”
Another dancer who’s breaking out is Michelle Dorrance, the current sweetheart of the tap world. Her super chops and mischievous style landed her on our cover in May 2008, and now she’s surging ahead as a choreographer. She’s taken her own flair for drama—eyes glancing sideways as though looking out for danger or fun—and extended it to her group pieces. We asked tap expert and New York Times reviewer Brian Seibert to trace her choreographic path in “Sounding Off.”
At right: “Gina” at our photo shoot. Photo by Matthew Karas.
We love to interview dance artists like Gina and Michelle at their big breakthrough moments. But what about those at the beginning of their careers? When you are just starting out you don’t have the range of choices they have, but you are hungry to dance. The question may come up, “When should you dance for free?” Siobhan Burke, former Dance Magazine associate editor (now a contributing writer), asked four freelance dancers this question. Some have flexible jobs that allow them to accept interesting dance offers that don’t pay well, while others have drawn the line and won’t accept nonpaying gigs. Ideally we would all get paid for our time and talent…but sometimes dancers just wanna dance.
Wendy Perron, Editor in Chief
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
The Mariinsky in Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Photo by Natasha Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky.
One Hundred Years Later
May 29 marks the centennial of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps. Dance artists pay tribute to the original provocateur around the world (probably without the riots, but one never knows):
Akram Khan Company in the premiere of Khan’s iTMOi in London
Richmond Ballet in Salvatore Aiello’s 1993 version in Norfolk, VA
Shen Wei Dance Arts in Wei’s The Rite of Spring in Houston, TX
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Bausch’s Frühlingsopfer in Gothenburg, Sweden
Tero Saarinen’s HUNT, a veritable light show, in Dublin
The Mariinsky Ballet will perform a commissioned Rite of Spring by Sasha Waltz in St. Petersburg. Both a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s original and the Sasha Waltz version will be danced in Salzburg, and, on the 29th and in two subsequent performances, at the original scene of the crime: the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris.
The choreographic offerings of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s two-week season at NYC’s Joyce Theater are plentiful: Ohad Naharin, Mats Ek, Aszure Barton, and Sharon Eyal are represented, along with works by former HSDC dancer Robyn Mineko Williams and resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. But two company performances happening this month in Chicago are no less intriguing: a Picasso-inspired site-specific day at the Art Institute of Chicago on May 9, and a big gala on May 30, honoring the country’s most vocal dance supporter/mayor, Rahm Emanuel. www.hubbardstreetdance.com.
Penny Saunders and Pablo Piantino in Ohad Naharin’s THREE TO MAX. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.
An American Tale
It’s a simple but elegant solution to the notion that ballet is inaccessible: Draw from the American literary canon to pull in audiences. After mounting The Great Gatsby in 2010, with live jazz musicians and singers that captured the Roaring ’20s, Septime Webre, director of The Washington Ballet, premieres the second work in his American Experience series, Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises, based on the classic novel. With a setting that ranges from Paris’ Left Bank to Pamplona for a bit of running with the bulls, it’s an ambitious undertaking. For future productions, the company is looking to adapt works by Henry James, Tennessee Williams, and Langston Hughes—and commission other choreographers. May 8–12 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. www.washingtonballet.org.
Jared Nelson in Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises. Photo by Brianne Bland, Courtesy TWB.
Sounds of Celebration
May 25 is National Tap Dance Day, which falls on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson’s birthday, and the party lasts all month long. Events like Dance Inn Production’s National Tap Dance Day weekend in Massachusetts and Spring to Dance (see below right), where Michelle Dorrance will debut a new piece, provide fun for all. The festivities also go international, from the Norman Rothstein Theatre in Vancouver to a hoofers’ gala at the Moscow International House of Music.
Michelle Dorrance. Photo by Matthew Murphy and Kenn Tam, Courtesy Dorrance Dance.
Spoleto Festival USA welcomes an international crop of dance talent to Charleston, SC, this month. Compagnie Käfig energetically blends samba, hip-hop, and capoeira in Correria and Agwa, while Kuchipudi diva Shantala Shivalingappa and Ballet Flamenco de Andalucía tell stories in their own dialects. American artists who bring humor to their work are also in the lineup: Lucky Plush Productions from Chicago and Jared Grimes, who makes his festival debut in a commissioned evening-length work. May 24–June 9. www.spoletousa.org.
Compagnie Käfig in Agwa at Jacob’s Pillow. Photo by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Pillow.
If the Pointe Shoe Fits
Christopher Wheeldon’s imaginative new version of Cinderella, a co-production between San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, has its U.S. premiere this month with performances in San Francisco from May 3–12. The choreographer’s version is more adult than Disney—he drew inspiration from the dark undertones of Prokofiev’s score. Wheeldon brings the production into the 21st century with spectacular special effects and puppetry by Basil Twist. www.sfballet.org.
Luke Willis, Sasha De Sola, and Sean Bennett rehearse Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Photo © Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Over Memorial Day Weekend, more than 30 groups will descend on the Touhill Performing Arts Center in St. Louis for the Emerson Spring to Dance Festival. Representing the Midwest are companies like Grand Rapids Ballet and Kansas City Ballet, with some friends from the coasts including ODC/Dance and Camille A. Brown. The festival will be a homecoming of sorts for St. Louis native Antonio Douthit, one of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s most riveting dancers, who will perform Ailey’s Pas de Duke with the luminous Alicia Mack Graf. And at just $15 each, tickets are a steal. www.dancestlouis.org.
Antonio Douthit of Ailey in Robert Battle’s Strange Humors. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Ailey.
Contributors: Suzannah Friscia, Kina Poon