"Michelle Dorrance, the Tireless Ambassador of Tap" by Gia Kourlas
Michelle Dorrance talks like she dances: fast. Her sentences start in one direction, pause for a quick, somewhat related observation or a random aside — “On the horizon: Eliot Feld/Michelle Dorrance collaboration. I can’t wait to do that” — and pick up vaguely where they left off.
With an ever-racing mind and big ambitions for her art form, Ms. Dorrance, who has the gangly grace of a model, has charged herself with heavy responsibilities: to put tap on the cultural map by bringing it back to the concert stage; to educate the world about it; and to choreograph.
Ms. Dorrance is certainly doing her part. She heads a company, Dorrance Dance, and is becoming increasingly visible outside the dance world. Last year, she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, which comes with a stipend of $625,000 over five years.
“Oh, God,” Ms. Dorrance, 36, said with a sigh. “Do you really want to talk about it? I have never been more unhappy.”
For one thing, she’s spread thin. She is in need of administrative assistance. “Everything slips through the cracks,” she said. She added about the MacArthur: “Here’s the truth — I can’t accept this award as an individual. I can’t comprehend that because I haven’t done anything.”
That’s not true, of course. Ms. Dorrance, whose company returns to the Joyce Theater on April 26 with “ETM: Double Down,” has accomplished a lot in a short time. In the past year alone, she’s unveiled acclaimed pieces like “The Blues Project” and “Myelination.” And she recognizes that interviews on National Public Radio, appearances on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and, yes, winning the MacArthur are for the greater good.
“I want tap dance to be relevant and penetrate certain communities where it’s always been a bastard dance form,” she said. Is Dorrance Dance, she wondered, capable of being the tap-dance equivalent of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater? “I can accept the award for that. But I’m not pursuing this for me.”
“She’s an incredible performer and student,” said Judy Hussie-Taylor, the executive director of Danspace Project who commissioned “SOUNDspace,” a much-admired, full-evening Dorrance work in 2013. “But she’s really one of a kind in the way she synthesized it and is innovating in the form, pushing it forward.”
Michelle Dorrance - Stockholm Tap Festival 2014 Video by Stockholm Tap Festival
But even as she advances the form, Ms. Dorrance is dedicated to tap’s heritage. She has studied with many of her tap ancestors, including Clayton (Peg Leg) Bates. Ms. Hussie-Taylor said that Ms. Dorrance had the class and grace of Jimmy Slyde or Charles (Honi) Coles, but she also touches on the “wow factor” of the Nicholas Brothers. “She’s not doing flash dancing,” Ms. Hussie-Taylor said, “but she’s touching on that history.”
For the tap master Brenda Bufalino, who recently served as a mentor to Ms. Dorrance as part of a Joyce Theater Creative Residency, two important aspects of her work are her theatricality and her body’s physical presence, of which she said: “She’ll go into a Suzie Q” — a move to the side with a scraping heel — “at any moment, but somehow the physicality maintains itself throughout the piece. It isn’t, oh here’s a move and then we drop that and then tap-dance for a while and here’s another move. It sustains, which I find to be very sophisticated.”
Ms. Dorrance got her start in ballet at 3 in North Carolina — her mother, M’Liss, was a founder of the Ballet School of Chapel Hill — but soon switched to tap. (She inherited flat feet from her father, Anson, the head coach of the hugely successful women’s soccer team at the University of North Carolina.) Her mentor Gene Medler schooled her in both technique and the history of tap, and she danced with his youth ensemble. She went on to perform in many groups and was a cast member of “Stomp” for several years.
“ETM: Double Down,” a collaboration between Ms. Dorrance and her longtime friend and company member Nicholas Van Young, incorporates his electronic tap boards, which he compares to electronic drum triggers; here, they work for the feet. “The entire stage is an instrument” is how Mr. Young described the effect. (“ETM” stands for “electronic tap music,” a nod toward electronic dance music.)
“There are a million different elements, and then there are larger themes inside of it,” Ms. Dorrance said of the work, which explores acoustic and digitally produced sounds. “But at the same time, our taps will always be present.”
Mr. Young said much of the show’s first half introduces the audience to the sonic textures the dancers and musicians are creating. As it progresses and relationships form among the dancers, hopefully, he said, the audience starts “to forget about the technology and just start experiencing this other world. It’s a playground. It’s a very different way of tap-dancing.”
For Ms. Dorrance, the performers in “ETM” are not exactly characters but more like spirits or entities. “A quality of emotion is important,” she said, adding that she was keen to explore elements of the show beyond its technology. “We could have cut it into quarters and created four different shows, but who’s got time to do that? All we would be doing is creating and showing a little bit and then creating more.”
Ms. Dorrance paused to consider the idea. “In a way, that’s a dream,” she said. “I could use my grant just to do that.”
Ms. Bufalino said she worried about Ms. Dorrance tiring herself out, and that worry seems justified. Ms. Dorrance, speaking on a rare free day, was frazzled. She had skipped a trip to London and was about to fly to Stockholm for a tap festival, followed by performances in Pennsylvania and Ohio. “Kathy Kaufmann, my lighting designer, is like, ‘Most people are lights and tights. You have sets and complex audio design,’” Ms. Dorrance said. “We’re doing a million things! It’s hard to manage it all.”
But that’s because Ms. Dorrance has big ambitions. She envisions her group as an institution along the lines of the Ailey organization. Her dream is to have dancers touring the world, as well as working in after-school programs. “We need a team of brilliant, possibly young dancers doing this repertory as lec-dems every single day of the week all over the place,” she said.
In 2017, Ms. Dorrance wants to establish her organization’s education arm and also provide her dancers with health insurance. “What tap dancers have health insurance?”
Carving time out of her schedule to be creative is one of her main problems. “Maybe I need to make a show full of no people where I don’t have to worry about these huge budgets,” she said, “but it better be something I’m really inspired to do.”
Her mind turned a corner and she sighed. “I consider it selfish, but I want to be such a better dancer. I can’t believe how long I’ve been saying that. There are so many things that I’m interested in, purely technically, and then what that lends itself to artistically — the way you have a nuanced way to execute something. I love that I might fall down trying to do this. I love living on the edge.”
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