What Happens When You Ask Tap "Genius" Michelle Dorrance to Choreograph on ABT
"Don't look at the mirror, look at your feet," Michelle Dorrance corrects. Smiling at the counterintuitive suggestion, Gillian Murphy, Devon Teuscher and Christine Shevchenko—American Ballet Theatre principals accustomed to projecting up and out to opera house balconies—look down at their pointe shoes as they shuffle into a line of tight fifth positions.
As polyrhythmic strains of music fill ABT's studios, the trio flashes through small, quicksilver position changes while Teuscher quietly counts a steady 4/4 beat that isn't yet audible in the music. Rapid-fire tendus take on an attack usually reserved for frappés, accom-panied by the sound of boxes purposefully striking the floor. ("The shape can exist a split-second before the note—it's like in tap, the motion has to happen early for the sound to be on time," Dorrance advised before the run.)
When they finish the section without stopping or kicking one another, Murphy smiles ruefully and says, "I need to get louder shoes."
The dancers had to get used to the idea of trying to make more sound with their shoes. Photo by Jim Lafferty
The brisk, brief trio opened Dorrance's Praedicere a few weeks later at ABT's spring gala, the dancers' legs spotlit, their faces (tipped down toward their feet) in shadow. The pièce d'occasion was the MacArthur-certified-"genius" tap dancer's first creation for a ballet company. It was only the first of three works ABT commissioned from her this year as part of the newly minted ABT Women's Movement initiative. The second debuted this summer at Vail Dance Festival (where ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie first saw Dorrance working with ballet dancers last year, sparking the idea for the commissions). The third opens the company's fall season on October 17, alongside existing works by Lauren Lovette and Twyla Tharp.
Conversation around Dorrance's commissions has largely swirled around the question "What is that going to look like?"
The works explore two main ideas: the acoustic possibilities of a pointe shoe that doesn't try to be silent, and the ways classical technique morphs when the emphasis is placed on rhythm over line.
"I'm absolutely interested in them owning being a musician onstage," Dorrance says. "As tap dancers, we are equally responsible for our music and our movement; the aesthetic form of tap dance is because I need to make this sound. So, with dancers who execute line so exquisitely, how can we find both integrity in sound and integrity in their technique?"
Corps member Tyler Maloney was the only male dancer to don pointe shoes for the May premiere. Photo by Jim Lafferty
By accenting the landing of petit allégro steps or clapping mid-pirouette, the dancers create rhythms that layer into a complex melody, merging for unison sections before fracturing back into polyrhythm. In the work's most effective moments, the music the dancers make with their feet seems to shiver up through their bodies, lending the classical steps a new vibrancy.
One avenue that intrigued Dorrance was asking both the men and the women to don pointe shoes in order to amplify the sounds of their feet. Although Tyler Maloney was the only male dancer to wear them for the gala, whether pointe shoes will make a wider appearance in the newest work is up in the air.
"I was a little soft on the rest of the men, except for talking the occasional trash," Dorrance says with a laugh. "I'd like for them to put on the instrument and then see what happens from there, you know?"
That lenience may have had something to do with the relative brevity of Praedicere's creation period, during which it was jostling for rehearsal time with major new works by Wayne McGregor and Alexei Ratmansky, plus seven other full-lengths.
"She spent the first two days just going over rhythms," says Teuscher. "We were also getting used to making sound with our pointe shoes; it took a shift in your brain to think about how you could make more sound with your shoes. And the music was some of the hardest to count I've ever experienced. Up until the day of the show we were listening to the music in the dressing room and getting it in our heads!"
Luckily for Dorrance (and the cast), they're being given a lot more time for the October premiere. "I need to revisit how complex I can go musically—and how much I want to torture these poor, poor, wonderful dancers," she says.
Dorrance is hesitant to state what moments from Praedicere, if any, will reappear. But she intends to use the same music, or at least the same composer—Brooklyn-based ensemble Dawn of Midi. "What I can say is that the dancers will absolutely be making music again, and further developing a relationship to music-making in their technique."
And what about tap shoes? "I keep getting asked that question," she says, laughing. Despite initially denying that she would ask ballet dancers to tap, Dorrance did end up having Craig Salstein, a longtime soloist, mark his farewell performance with a surprise tap solo this spring.
"I could tell you right now that no one's going to put a tap shoe on," she says, "but, you know, I shouldn't shoot myself in the foot, so to speak."
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Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
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The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.