Interview: Meet Michelle Dorrance, Artistic Director of Dorrance Dance
Dorrance Dance founded in 2011 by Artistic Director and 2015 MacArthur Fellow, Michelle Dorrance, the company’s inaugural performance garnered a Bessie Award for “blasting open our notions of tap.” Dorrance Dance aims to honor tap dance’s unique and powerful history in a new and dynamic context by upholding its tradition while simultaneously pushing it rhythmically, technically, and conceptually. The company is passionately committed to tap dance education and expanding the audience of tap dance throughout the world.
Tell us about your company, Dorrance Dance. You formed the company in 2010, how did this come about?
The truth about how this came about: I danced for almost too many New York City-based tap dance projects, companies, and choreographers from my late teens through my mid-twenties. I developed a solo career during that time that extended through my time performing with STOMP in my late-twenties. I simultaneously started playing bass in my best friend’s band (a band that is relatively well known over there!: Darwin Deez) and we toured the US, UK, parts of Europe and Australia, before I realized I was trying to do WAY too much. It wasn’t until I broke my foot at the age of 30 that I was struck with how pertinent it was for me to put my vision for the possibility I saw in tap dance, first.
Dorrance Dance is made up of truly unique dancers and musicians. We have an unconquerable respect for our art form, its traditions, and its possibilities. We love that tap dance is the kind of form that can simultaneously reference something from the 1940s and push the form into innovative territory that no one has seen. We are all improvisational dancers and musicians with a reverence for and genuine investment in choreographic work/development and musical composition.
An extract from your new piece, ETM: Double Down will be performed at Sadler’s Wells Sampled this year, tell us about it.
We will be performing a segment of the show that we call “Boards and Chains” that I co-choreographed with Nicholas Van Young (the show’s co-creator), featuring improvisation by the dancers. “Boards and Chains” represents a number of things to us as tap dancers in a contemporary dance world. Tap dance is often treated like the bastard of the dance forms. We are not allowed to dance on most floors. A wood floor is truly an instrument to us and an integral part of how we create the work we do, but we are often relegated to the small instruments we provide ourselves. The instruments used in this excerpt are the heart of the acoustic section of “ETM: Double Down.” In an effort to contrast inorganic/electronic sounds, this excerpt explores organic/acoustic sounds, while the composition brings counterpoint, polyrhythm, tone, texture, and a natural tension between the physical and sonic dynamics to the forefront.
When did you decide you wanted to dance professionally?
There was never a point at which I thought to myself as a young dancer, “I’m going to be a professional tap dancer.” I just knew I would never stop tap dancing.
What drew you to Tap dancing?
My mother was a professional ballet dancer and I studied at her school from age 3 to 17. During this time, I was incredibly lucky to have Gene Medler as my tap teacher and mentor. He sought out the living masters of our form (who at the time were in their 70s, 80s, and 90s) and brought us to study with them. He is a master educator and taught us the history of tap dance, its cultural significance, and it’s unique nature as both a form of movement AND music. I performed with his North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble (NCYTE) for 10 years. I am the dancer I am today, because of him.
What has been the stand out moment in your career to date?
Being named a MacArthur Fellow has been, by far, the most humbling and terrifying of any experience I’ve had in my career to date. There are many brilliant tap dancers that I look up to, who are absolute geniuses to me – as musicians, as artists, as performers, as dancers, as multi-instrumentalists, as composers, as choreographers, as historians, as writers, as teachers, as human beings – they push me and inspire me daily. That I do not yet feel I am close to achieving my potential as a technician or an artist only further inspires me to work my hardest to be worthy of their company and to be worthy of those in the legacy of the MacArthur Fellowship.
You are busy touring, and performing, how do you find the space to create new pieces of work?
Honestly, it is very difficult to find time and space to create! Fortunately, I have scheduled the next month off from performing in order to fully immerse myself in the creative process for a new work in the “Rotunda” of New York City’s Guggenheim Museum.
Where do you draw inspiration from when creating or performing live?
Music is truly at the root of almost everything I create. And by “music,” I can mean a particular composition or song, I can mean a rhythm in my head or its counter rhythm, I can mean a feel, I can mean the tension that we can build between two feels, and I can also mean what emotions arise from any/all of that music. Its not that I don’t draw inspiration from concept, narrative, visual or movement based ideas, its just that in order for any of those things to be honest, their songs must come first.
Is Tap, having a renaissance?
This is a question that was being asked when I was a teenager in the 1990s as well! So I say, YES! ALWAYS AND FOREVER! LET THE TAP RENAISSANCE NEVER DIE!
Tap has been described as America’s first dance form, why do you think tap holds this position over other American originated dance forms like hip hop, folk dance, swing or modern dance?
One of the first accounts of tap dance (called buck dancing and/or buck and wing before it was called tap dancing) in America dates back to the mid 1800s on a slave plantation. A little bit more about the history… in the mid to late 18th century, drums were taken away from African-American plantation slaves because they were used to communicate and to organize escapes and uprisings. Body percussion (known then as “patting juba”) and tap dance were born both out of a necessity to communicate and survive, as well as an outlet for expression. While they are still very important American forms; Hip-hop, folk dance, swing, and modern are all MUCH younger than tap dance. Outside of Native American traditions, tap dance is, historically, America’s first dance form. What is most striking is that the most oppressed culture in the country created and innovated under the most dire of circumstances. It was a necessity. The origins have an incredibly powerful affect on the form to this day.
What do you enjoy most about performing and choreographing with your company?
Watching the dancers and musicians I work with take risks, discover, and explore on stage is one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had. Both in performance and in our cyphers before a show – there is nothing more exhilarating than watching someone push themselves past what they thought was possible and to then be inspired to do the same yourself.
You are back at Sadler’s Wells in July 2017 with the full length version ETM: Double Down, What else is next for Dorrance Dance?
We are SO excited to perform at Sadler’s Wells!!! And we are also looking forward to this site-specific work for the Guggenheim in February, to our first full company show in Asia (at the Hong Kong Arts Festival), as well as creating a new work commissioned by New York City Centre that will premiere in the fall of 2017!
London is sometimes referred to as ‘the dance capital of the world’ – do you agree with that? What would make it better to work in?
Since I’ve only performed in London once as a tap dancer but have performed there between 5 and 10 times as a bass player, I genuinely look forward to experiencing London as much more of a dance capital for years to come!
Tel: +44 (0)207 863 8000
“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.) (Full Gia Kourlasapril article here: http://nyti.ms/1U2D7t2)