The vivacious tap dancer explores the sonic possibilities of Danspace Project with her new SOUNDspace
Sun Jan 13 2013
Photograph: Ian Douglas
Michelle Dorrance is joined by some of the tap world's best dancers for SOUNDspace, a new work that will be at Danspace Project January 17 through 19. In SOUNDspace, Michelle Dorrance, one of New York's most compelling tap dancers, explores the sonic possibilities of St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery in this experiment with texture and sound.
Michelle Dorrance and all her gangly power would be a crazy-unique addition to any part of the dance world, but the fact that her métier is tap serves her boundless energy well. In SOUNDspace, which opens at Danspace Project January 17, her aim is to explore the sonic possibilities of St. Mark’s Church while pushing the boundaries and textures of tap technique. (Her remarkable cast includes Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Nicholas Young and Jose BoyBoi Tena.) In North Carolina, Dorrance started out in ballet—her mother runs the Ballet School of Chapel Hill—but soon found her passion for making music with her body. She talks like she dances, spewing out sentences as fast as those fluttering feet move: “I either drink soda every day or I’m cold turkey. I’m a Virgo but I’m not a good one. Gemini moon, it wrecks me.” But she does know how to put on a show.
Time Out New York: You grew up in North Carolina. Your mother runs the Ballet School of Chapel Hill and your father is a soccer coach, right?
Michelle Dorrance: He still plays. He used to coach the United States Women’s National Team and was really the beginning of that program coming to fruition. When he brought Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly onto the team, the United States Soccer Federation—or maybe veterans—were beside themselves. They were like, “We can’t believe you’re getting rid of these older players.” [The newer players] were playing cutting-edge soccer. Mia grew up playing with boys. They were personality players and unique and incredible; she’s like an adopted sister to our family. She graduated from high school early to come to Carolina, which is the university team he coaches. People couldn’t accept those young athletes at the time but then immediately did once they were doing things for the country. Sports politics is weird. He coached that team for a long time, but resigned. I think the politics just aren’t fun. I can imagine being the head of anything that has to do with the United States as a country.
Time Out New York: And dealing with both money and education issues.
Michelle Dorrance: And with any community. The dance community is a colorful one.
Time Out New York: And there are so many varieties within it: tap, downtown, ballet.
Michelle Dorrance: I know. That’s so interesting. You must have a lot of social information on your table. I’m so sorry.
Time Out New York: But don’t you also crossover into other dance worlds?
Michelle Dorrance: This is what we hope for tap dance in general: that it’s not so insular. It’s beautiful that it is. The way it’s an oral tradition is maybe what makes it so mindful of itself. When it’s about preservation, and about taking advantage of masters who are in their eighties or nineties before they pass away, it makes sense that we’re introspective. I wouldn’t say introverted. Any tap dancer is interested in pushing the boundaries of the art form and pushing it into the dance world as opposed to just, this is the tap community inside of the dance world—this little bubble at the bottom. Or the bastard dance form. But I feel that’s the burden tap has always had to bear.
Time Out New York: It’s complicated, right?
Michelle Dorrance: What’s really interesting is that hip-hop is such a young form in relationship to tap. What we would really call tap dancing was called buck dancing in the mid- to late 1800s; with hip-hop, locking started in the ’60s and then you have the funk dancing of the ’70s. Hip-hop is a young form. And it’s being institutionalized at least academically much more so than tap dance ever has.
Time Out New York: I guess because hip-hop came of age in a different time and it’s also so commercial. You can load so much theory onto it.
Michelle Dorrance: Yes. Everything rides on the history of tap as entertainment and the movie musicals; people look at that as kitsch or its own light form of art, but it’s rare that a dancer in the contemporary or ballet world really sees straight through to all the really interesting, racially charged things that were happening. I wonder how many people could name five masters of tap. Whereas we could all name ballerinas or choreographers. And it’s an indigenous American form.
Time Out New York: How did you get into tap?
Michelle Dorrance: I have flat feet. I started ballet probably as young as I could—three years old. My mom essentially started the school with an administrator for the first year and then her two partners from the school joined in, and there have been many partners since, including my mentor, the tap dancer Gene Medler, who founded the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. What I remember about tap dance early enough is just that it completely made sense. I could always identify what was happening in ballet, but my body wouldn’t always do it, and I think one of the reasons why tap made so much sense was the musical element of it. Kinesthetically it just felt right in my body. My teacher tells me that at the very first audition for the Youth Ensemble, which was called the Children’s Tap Company at the time, I improvised. I was seven or eight years old, just rattling around. I was just very comfortable with it and at a very high level at a very young age. I didn’t feel like I was exceptional. I just loved it. Clearly, I understood that maybe I would learn something faster than someone else, but that never translated to “I’m a gangster at tap dancing.” It was incredible: making music while you dance. Dance as music. I think one of the most powerful things about tap dancing is being a musician and a dancer at the same time. When you make a mistake as a tap dancer, you don’t just see it, you hear it. You can transition out of a physical mistake, but the second your weight is in the wrong place, a sound is in the wrong place. There’s an interesting responsibility and perfectionism that comes along with any musical, percussive dancer.
Time Out New York: What do you do when you make a mistake like that? How do you get out of it?
Michelle Dorrance: You have to improvise your way back into it. It’s very different depending on the choreography. Hopefully, depending on the piece, you stay in character—you make it a part of the character. Ballet dancers can’t pull a solo whenever they want to. It’s nice that tap is such an improvisational form. You could make it a moment that didn’t exist before. Maybe in certain pieces that I have choreographed that wouldn’t work. That’s kind of sad. I would love to give people that kind of freedom. There are things that I create that are much more rigid than I’ve ever been a part of, which is weird. In Jason Samuel Smith’s choreography that we did last summer at the Joyce with Charlie Parker music, if you fall off the train you’re off the train. What a disaster. You have no choice. You have to improvise, and ideally you know the music well enough. As long as you’re really in tune with the music, you can carry it. That kind of precision is so exciting and so challenging. The criticism of it, or the transcription that we’re doing with bebop, is that it’s like tap karaoke. But it’s such an incredible challenge, and translating something musically into what we know as our music, tonally, is much less of a range and isn’t necessarily heard by an untrained ear as, Oh, I really hear the way that treble dropped into much more of a staccato-based sound. But not everybody has to be a nerd to feel it or to have that communicated. It’s fascinating.
Time Out New York: What is SOUNDspace?
Michelle Dorrance: Ever since Dormeshia [Sumbry-Edwards] and I shared an evening at Danspace Project, I’ve been really interested in that space. It’s such an acoustic chamber. One of the tragic problems that we encounter as tap dancers constantly is having a proper floor. Or, are we allowed to dance on the floor? Usually not. When we’re lucky is when we’re touring, and it’s some gorgeous old vaudeville house and the floor is a floor people have tap-danced on for almost a hundred years. Those are the houses you want to play. I think it has to do with the organization—if it’s a cultural arts or a university. When theaters are built, they’re built with a very specific aesthetic of concert dance, and therefore it’s a sprung stage.
Time Out New York: So what about Danspace Project?
Michelle Dorrance: The church doesn’t want the risk. Needless to say, that was the first major discussion that we had at the time: Where are we going to dance? I would stand in the space and play around with the way certain things would sound, which is why I originally performed a tribute to Jimmy [Slyde] in socks. I’ve since listened to leather soles in there and wood taps, which I’m working on getting right now. Wood on wood is much less harsh. The original taps were wood taps.
Time Out New York: How do you find them now?
Michelle Dorrance: Here comes my Kickstarter campaign. I just want to explore different textures and tones. I’m always thinking about sound—inside of my own creative process, music is often the first thing that charges what I’m going to do. Or music will inspire a visual concept or a character concept. Music will inspire a percussive line. So what’s interesting about this process is that I’m starting from silence. What do I want to hear in the space? And what do I want people to think about as far as the way things can develop sonically with dance? There are way too many ideas to explore in one evening, and I don’t want to go on forever. Of course, we could indulge ourselves, but I’d like to introduce a number of ideas, explore things a little bit and keep things moving. I am rehearsing my poor dancers in a way that I have never in my entire life.
Time Out New York: What do you mean?
Michelle Dorrance: I’ll just jump from one thing to the next. I want to introduce the way that sound carries in the space and how all of a sudden you can hear the bass in your sternum, in your bones. It’s almost the way your body receives the sound. I don’t want to do a spell-out: This is what I’m doing, everyone. But I’m interested in people experiencing it, even if it’s on a subconscious level. This has to do with the history of tap: We know the buck-and-wing dancer Bojangles was one of the most famous ever in the history of tap dance, but not as many people know John Bubbles, who brought the form into the heels. There is part of that history charging this movement, where we’re coming across the floor using a lot of work on the toes and then dropping into the heels, which takes over the space entirely. It takes over your body when you’re receiving the sound. Even if it’s just a visual experience, you’re feeling the weight of the dancer come down. That’s three minutes and then we have to move onto the next thing. But I’m very curious about exploring a lot of those possibilities. There’s a historical perspective; there’s also wanting to experiment. There are so many things going on technically with tap. Whenever any of us are in a room, you constantly want to riff off the last thing you saw that you’ve never seen before. It happens so quickly now.
Time Out New York: Does that make you crazy?
Michelle Dorrance: It could. It probably should. I recently collaborated with Cori Olinghouse, and we were talking about process and how long a lot of contemporary choreographers take to create. I told her I almost feel guilty that I like to create quickly. Of course, I’ll revise. But I feel very strongly about something: If I don’t like it, I know it. And if I want to revise it, I’ll leave it alone until I know how I’m going to revise it. I wonder how much things would change if I really let certain things incubate. She said, “But don’t you realize how indulgent it is?” Sometimes necessarily so; Cori is part of the canon of Trisha Brown and loves it and is such a gorgeous mover. You could say we’re similar physically—we move nothing alike. I would love to be able to imitate that. I say that all the time. I’m 33. I was going to start break-dancing six years ago and I would be so much better [at it] now. I think about that all the time. You see a lot of hip-hop inspired by tap. I love the idea of reappropriating that. I explored that a little bit in our last show, in the piece Three to One. There’s a lot of visually percussive work that isn’t necessarily acknowledged as percussive, but that’s exactly what it is. That’s another thing I’m interested in playing with in the show as well. I have other ideas that do have to do with visual percussion.
Time Out New York: How so?
Michelle Dorrance: I love the idea of a visual and percussive counterpoint. You might not necessarily hear this, but you’re going to experience it. Seeing is hearing, and hearing is seeing. That’s another thing I love playing with. [Laughs] My mom is always very mindful to tell me not to go on too long in the dark.
Time Out New York: I would support you if you did a whole show in the dark.
Michelle Dorrance: Come on! But you’re the one who has to review that show. I wouldn’t mind if it was like this for the first five minutes, and the next 45 a jackhammer. This is so tangential, but Eva Yaa Asantewaa had a writing workshop on tap dance that a few of us helped facilitate. We gave presentations and talked about our perspective on some of the current writing about tap dance, and I used my least favorite examples of the way rhythm was described: “jackhammer.” I understand that this is someone’s very honest experience. How can I argue with that? It’s hard when that’s the mouthpiece to the masses. It’s something that people have seen and sure, when someone goes fast, at first it’s impressive and everyone claps. When anything virtuosic happens in ballet, that’s exciting. And yet that’s artful. A male variation is art. If we had a similar movement in tap, it would be considered flash or tricks. Despite the fact that the transitions require just as much nuance and mastery and if anything, a slightly more complicated athleticism because you’re having to leave the ground and stay close to the ground at the same time to create sound. Our hope as tap dancers is that people will really receive the sound and the texture as new music, as opposed to “jackhammer.”
Time Out New York: I think that presentation is everything.
Michelle Dorrance: This is one of the things we’re struggling with as a community. People have to find a new frame. Context carries so much. I’m very charged by pushing the context.
Time Out New York: How many dancers are in the piece?
Michelle Dorrance: I always try to use fewer than I end up using. In part, that is a tap community problem. We’re a community; we love each other. It’s awful. Maybe 12.
Time Out New York: How do you escape that? Is it worse than the downtown dance community?
Michelle Dorrance: I’m sure it is. We’re more insular and less judgmental. And I don’t know a million downtown dancers, but I know a handful, and I know the way they talk about each other. I used to think that was really cowardice until I saw Fran Lebowitz, who said, “I firmly believe in talking behind people’s backs because then they’ll hear it more than once.” She’s a genius. The truth is I probably have more dancers than I need, but this is actually something that I’m playing around with. I can move people in a way that I don’t have to worry about them running around the stage creating noise. So now I have enough dancers to be able to hear different things happening in the space without sacrificing the visual element, or a distracting sound in order to get to another spot, because I do want things to pop in different locations at certain point. Possibly in the dark and also in the light.
Time Out New York: And you can work on the floor however you want this time?
Michelle Dorrance: This is my dream: The way I want to work on the floor involves all these different textures, but in part I’ve developed wanting to use all these different textures because of the limitations. I want to explore the space sonically. I also want to express the different textures that tap dance has that we hear. The way we scat something is so colorful, and people are like, “That’s not what that sounds like…” but once you pay attention to it, it is, “Ba-gaga-gogo-ga.” You can really hear what someone’s saying, and once you know their melody, you’re going to play that particular phrase differently, and you’re going to move differently and place your weight differently. And the origin of your movement is going to be different. There are too many dancers, but in part it’s because I do want to explore the space and I am too excited about creating multiform work to not at least have a moment for it in this show. The visual-versus-aural percussion is truly inspiring me right now, even if it is more of a glimpse and less of a huge movement. Two dancers I’m using are Mishay Petronelli, who danced with me last time, and Jose BoyBoi Tena—have you seen him? This kid is nuts. You’re going to die for the way he moves. As a tap dancer, I might be unique in this: I’m really attracted to the idiosyncrasies of body type. Ryan [Casey] is 6'8". One of the pieces I created for that last show was because he was 6'8"—I first taught him in Boston when he was 16, and I immediately knew I wanted to create a duet for him with this other unbelievably gangly girl who was 5'10", who lived in North Carolina. He has very good control, but what I was really interested in is all that eccentric, almost grotesque, weird stuff that happens, especially when you’re dealing with tap, which is often a really relaxed form. And then going from that relaxed technique to an articulated approach to the floor. What happens to his body in reaction to the floor?
There’s this constant conversation about hoofing versus tap dancing, but what I could say I believe to be hoofing is dancing from the ground up. Some people say it’s a focus on the music rather than the presentation. It’s a politically charged and very heavy conversation, however something that Gene Medler used to say is “the form follows the function.” Let’s say I’m going to do a multi-sound wing—the reason this exists is to get you off the floor to hang in the air for enough time to create five or ten sounds. The reason we get this particular line or form is to create a specific sound. I feel like tap dancing is the dance you don’t always get to see musicians play—the dance of a drummer or the dance of a guitar player—but because you’re dealing with gravity and the full weight of your body—landing on a very small part of your foot, but going back to the way the body responds to the form is really inspiring to me. So I met Ryan and knew Elena; she then came to school at Columbia, and in her senior year Ryan came to NYU. And for a whole year, you would think I would finish that duet! No. The Danspace opportunity came, so I thought, This has to happen. I found ways of exploring different characters and the way the body responds to different things, but also the character that comes with that. BoyBoi has such a unique quality of movement. It’s so languid. He is also so unbelievably sharp and percussive. That’s another thing I love about Mishay, and their body types could not be more different. He just turned 18 and is almost reed thin; she is pure muscle. Hopefully I’ll be able to create something so that I can really explore that with them, because I’m also trying to explore sound. This is my life: I’m very ADD, but I feel like in order to be honest in what I’m presenting, even if it’s pushing it to get it done, I have to present what is charging me artistically at any given time. I feel really dishonest if I don’t do that.
Time Out New York: Is this show set? Are there moments of improvisation?
Michelle Dorrance: There are definitely moments of improvisation. Huge. Because that’s part of the exploration—with direction of course. Dormeshia is supposedly doing the show. We’ve only had a few rehearsals. She is such a brilliant musician and also such a masterful dancer. I am excited to let her loose—I am going to create a structure that exists outside of her. This is another thing: I’m trying to underscore different solo moments with different textures and different melodic lines. I was going to start developing that today, but I didn’t have time for rehearsal. I had Dany [Studios] only until 2pm. Oh, rehearsal space! [Stricken] I’m so grateful for Dany, but you can’t tap-dance anywhere. Wouldn’t it be cool to tap-dance at Gibney? Those floors are gorgeous. They would all have heart attacks and die. This is one of the hugest problems for us: finding space in the city.
Time Out New York: Both to perform and to rehearse in?
Michelle Dorrance: Yes. People are like, “We’d love to have you,” and so many don’t think about it until you ask, “There’s a floor?” One of the high-profile gigs we did with Savion [Glover] was the Nijinsky Awards. We got there and there wasn’t a floor, and you could tell things changed in an hour. The next time we saw him he was livid. We’re going to the Prince of Monaco, but for [Savion], it doesn’t ever matter who’s in the audience; it’s really about the form, and in that way that he’s a purist about it. He repeated to us something that he communicated, which was, “Would you ask your ballet dancers to dance on sand?” You know how he gets super biting. It was such an appropriate metaphor. People don’t realize how important it is. But I’m really exciting about Danspace, if overwhelmed with ideas. Editing will be a harder process. And I also want to give it time to breathe.
Time Out New York: What can you do to make tap more prominent in the public eye?
Michelle Dorrance: We need to do everything at once, and I know that’s the most absurd answer, but every time I question what I’m focused on—I’m focused on this Danspace show and I do have my foot largely in the door into the downtown or concert dance world, because that’s so important. It’s in part because of the way I was raised—like going to the American Dance Festival; I grew up in Chapel Hill and my mom was on dance faculty at Duke. I saw everything as long as I can remember. There was one evening of tap dance in my entire youth at ADF, in 1992. So to answer your question: We have to take over the world. Those old propaganda films showed the Nazis taking over—it was like oil spilling into Europe. I don’t know why that image is burned into my brain, but we need to be focused in every direction artistically, from really bare-bones downtown work to cabaret work. We have to constantly be putting what’s going on in the form out there; there’s so much innovation. And there are a million visions, too.
Time Out New York: How big is the tap community?
Michelle Dorrance: It’s so much bigger than people realize, but it’s still so small. If there is a tap dancer that’s incredible and I have not met them, I’m like, Who the hell is that? It’s that much of a surprise to me. Or you find out what their lineage is, and we are very much about that. The way our community is so interconnected and small is really reassuring and supportive in a very specific way, and I find that to be really powerful. Of course, we want it to be more popular. From the ’20s to the ’40s, everyone knew how to tap-dance. It was part of the canon of dance.
Time Out New York: It was part of dance education, and that’s not happening now, right?
Michelle Dorrance: Right. It is not institutionalized academically. We’re the bastard dance form. But there are enough people that are pushing to educate, and enough people who are pushing to market and pushing things artistically, that I do believe inside of this decade it will be in a very new place. But everyone has to work as hard as they possibly can.
Time Out New York: Will there be music in your show?
Michelle Dorrance: Okay…the answer is yes. Has it been created? No. There’s a percussive score, which is music of course, but I am building in some percussion that involves the body or involves sounds that we can create as percussive dancers that aren’t necessarily tap. I do have a bass player, and I am interested in the interplay between some melody and some percussion. The range of a bass is actually very great and the way it will carry in the space, I think, will be very beautiful. But I don’t want it to feel like the gimmick of using music in the show amidst all of this percussion. I want the transitions with or without the music to be seamless, and I don’t necessarily want it to dictate the exploration; I want it to accompany the sonic exploration or the percussive exploration or the textures. Despite the fact that Leo [Janks, Danspace Project’s technical director] is nervous about sand, hopefully we’ll be able to bring that texture into the space. I was lucky enough to do a lot of sand work when I was younger; not a lot of people practice that technique. Even though Sandman was a notorious asshole supposedly, I always admired his music and what he did. There’s a contemporary tap dancer, Guillem Alonso, from Spain. He has an unbelievable sand technique. Anytime I see him, we’ll have a moment for the technique. It is very different. Certain elements of the vocabulary are similar, but the approach to the floor is so different and the way you have to create the sound is so different because it’s constantly connected. A percussive step is nothing. It has to move.
Time Out New York: How have things changed for you as a female tap dancer? Is it better now?
Michelle Dorrance: Oh yeah. I feel like we have more freedom than the guys for every reason. Women as performers are able to explore a little more of everything—maybe that’s Western culture, maybe not. I can explore so much movement as a woman—granted I’ve been called a tomboy. I understand the way people receive my energy and I can accept that. But we’re allowed to explore things that transcend gender in a way that men won’t due to social perspective, and I also feel like we’re allowed to explore different qualities of movement. As a younger dancer I was much more conscious of the fact that I didn’t see a girl onstage—I didn’t think it mattered, but I would acknowledge that I didn’t always see women doing this. I came of age in the Noise/Funk era—I was 15. There were no women in the show at the time, but then Dormeshia was in the show in drag, and then in the reincarnation of the show she was in the show as a woman and in heels. She’s a gangster. She’s amazing. Of course, in tap there are all of these stereotypes: There’s the chorus line, which is always female, and then there’s the soloist. And one still thinks of the soloist as a male. People know Savion Glover, Gregory Hines, Jason Samuels Smith. And people do know Dormeshia Sundry-Edwards, but everyone should know Dormeshia Sundry-Edwards, and everyone should know Jeni LeGon. We could go on and on.
Michelle Dorrance is at Danspace Project Jan 17–19.