Q&A with Michelle Dorrance

Posted on 13 July 2017

We chat to Michelle Dorrance about all things tap and her new production ETM: Double Down. Find out what she had to say below.

Tap, for the uninitiated, conjures images of Gene Kelly and Ginger Rodgers or maybe even Michael Flatly. You are clearly doing some really innovative things at the moment. What is your vision for the next 3- 5 years?

The future of tap dance is absolutely limitless. My vision involves tap dance moving in every direction at once. We, Dorrance Dance, are actively touring on what is a predominantly contemporary, modern, and ballet driven concert dance circuit. We will continue to do this while also educating our audiences (and presenting organisations) about tap dance’s very misunderstood history and about other incredible tap dancers/companies/choreographers that they should seek out! My vision is also to support tap dance as a mainstay at every jazz must festival like it once was, to support tap dance on television, in films, and particularly support GOOD tap dancing on the Broadway stage. There also needs to be a revolution in university dance and music programs to incorporate an accurate history of tap dance (the oldest American art form after Native American forms), I am working to collaborate with historians and dancers to develop this as well as a second company of dancers dedicated entirely to lecture-demonstrations! Personally, I want to be the best dancer/musician I can be in order to honour this incredibly sophisticated form and the masters that came before us!!

Also bring us up to speed on what hot and happening in the dance world, and more specifically the tap world right now, besides you of course.
I couldn’t be more excited about the future of tap dance because of the incredible young MONSTEROUS dancers coming up across the United States and in a handful of other countries throughout the world. There is constant technical innovation happening and brilliant, unique improvisational dancers developing - I just left Jacob’s Pillow where I co-directed a two-week tap program with one of our masters, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and we can’t wait to create more work for these up and coming dancer/musicians to be a part of. Some of them are pushing the boundaries of institutions as TEENAGERS - one young man, Jabu Greybeal, was just accepted into a 6 week program at one of the most respected music schools in the country as a tap dancer (Berkely School of Music, in Boston) - this is the kind of far-reaching growth that is happening right now. Tap dance is currently pushing boundaries in every direction from the street corners to museums to nightclubs to opera halls and back. The future of tap dance is incredibly bright, the form is so dynamic and sophisticated. As long as we continue to educate and share generously, the possibilities are endless.

Most dance companies have a musical director, you have an entire band, what’s the logic behind that?
We work with some very special musicians who love and respect tap dance and have a tremendous sensitivity to its collaborative, percussive compositional element. The development of the original music that we use in ETM happened in a myriad of ways because of the unique make-up of our dancer/musician ensemble - some examples: Nicholas Young, my co-choreographer composed some of the oldest segments in the show and was working on those before choreography started. Greg Richardson, our bassist, composed a brilliant work for fun while we were in the creative process for ETM: The Initial Approach, never intending to have to play it live, but we absolutely fell in LOVE with it so he adapted the entire build of it to his looping pedal in tandem with dancers playing a repeating patterns on trigger boards that shift every 20 counts! When we realized how we wanted to introduce ETM: Double Down to the audience conceptually and logistically, we asked one of our dancers, Warren Craft (who is also an electronic music composer), to work on the very opening segment for the show with very specific guidelines in relationship to how many trigger boards we could move with x number of dancers on stage at once. Once we were working on a section we call “piano” (in which 16 boards are lined up side by side), Donovan Dorrance, our pianist/controllorist (also my brother), composed an entire piece with the direction of dancers’ movement up and down a scale, toward and away from one another, in mind. And our vocalist, Aaron Marcellus IMPROVISES compositions (literally composing live every night) by layering his vocals on top of themselves using a Nintendo wi-mote. The compositional process for this show is incredibly arduous, but also powerfully rewarding!!

Which comes first: the music or the dance?
Our dance IS music. SO my answer: The music. Always. All ways.

So can the dance shape the music as well as vice versa?
In every way, yes.

How did the collaboration with Nicholas Van Young come about?
Nicholas and I have been friends since first meeting at the St. Louis Tap Festival when we were 14 and 16 years-old. We have hoofed on subway platforms together, toured the United States in STOMP together, played in a band (Darwin Deez) together - the two of collaborating was always a dream, but it was also an inevitability. We have been abstractly collaborating for the entirety of our friendship but formally collaborated on ETM because of the technology Nicholas was incorporating into his solo work and how excited we both were to manifest that with an entire company of dancer/musicians!

Tell us about the inspiration and story of ETM: Double Down.
First and foremost, ETM: Double Down features what is best described as an electronic drum kit for the dancer’s feet (developed by Nicholas Van Young), spread across the entire stage on platforms and moved across our performance floor throughout different segments. Tap dancers are equally responsible as dancers AND musicians and ETM takes this idea into a new realm. What we have been exploring is the way our percussive composition/choreography for our feet can interface with a musical composition and choreographic score, where sometimes the playing of the music IS the choreography itself, sometimes the dancers straddle the playing of a few notes each in order to make up the entire composition (this is sometimes executed by the dancers alone and sometimes in tandem with our live musicians), and the most challenging and exhilarating feat is when the dancers are playing the musical composition with their feet on these special “tigger boards” while simultaneously executing additional choreography! When you are in the midst of it, it is totally mind-blowing! In ETM: Double Down, we explore relationships in extremes: what we are responsible for as dancers vs. musicians, our relationship to the organic vs. inorganic, and the constant tension and collaboration between the electric and acoustic. There are emotional narratives so rarely explored in our art form

Now besides the band, the dancers, ETM: Double Down also features a B-girl, an unusual collaboration for tap, what inspired the inclusion?
Not at all an unusual collaboration! The first b-boys/b-girls were inspired by and imitated two very specific things, The Nicholas Brothers and kung-fu films. The athletic floor work and incredible style exhibited by one of the greatest flash tap dance acts of all time are at the very root of breaking as a form!!! All you need to do is to look at tap dance and lindy hop/boogie/charleston forms in relationship to house dance and hip hop dance to see the undeniable influence of jazz-era vernacular forms on the street and club dances of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. One can then go back just a little bit further in order to see these forms are all part of the African diaspora!! Tap dance, house, hip-hop, and breaking are all rooted in African movement. It’s so exciting to see the forms together on stage. The culture of improvisational exchange is alive and well at the roots of them all and we love exploring that in ETM.

Plug show!
One of the strangest things ever written about this show by a presenter was this:

For lovers of tap dance but especially for it's detractors!! I think this speaks volumes about how this will pleasantly surprise those who have traditionally not enjoyed or dismissed tap dance. COME ROCK WITH US LONDON! LET'S GAOW!!!!!

ETM: Double Down is playing at the Sadler's Wells until Saturday 15th July so get your tickets here whilst you can.

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