With one foot firmly planted in past traditions and the other striding toward the future, Dorrance Dance provides an expansive view of the history of tap and where it's headed.
Led by founder, choreographer, and MacArthur Fellow Michelle Dorrance, the company is set to return to Spoleto with two radically different programs: One, a diverse collage of routines culled from across their body of work. The second, a technological exercise that melds traditional tap with electronic music.
"Being rooted in a form that is older than pretty much any art form in this country — that is, 'American' outside of Native American art forms — we explore new things without even trying just because of those innovators. They encouraged us to find our voices as individuals," says Dorrance. "What's beautiful about tap dance is that it can be a solo, improvisational art form. It lives inside of the jazz tradition in that way. As part of the jazz tradition, if you're not pursuing your own voice stylistically, you're not really making strides for the art form."
Pairing the company's most recent composition, titled Myelination, with two shorter works dating back to Dorrance Dance's earliest days — Three to One and Jungle Blues — audiences can see the true breadth of what the company can do.
Three to One sees Dorrance incorporating non-percussive dancers into the tap ensemble. Tapping into the common roots that connect their tap predecessors with hip-hop and breakdance styles born in the '70s and '80s, Dorrance finds the common vernacular among these seemingly disparate forms of American dance.
"We have this kind of footwork in common, and we have some of these angular movements in common without even necessarily realizing it until we acknowledge it," Dorrance points out. "The juxtaposition often reminds us how connected we are and also that there is always so much we can learn from each other and a constant influence."
Jungle Blues reached back even further into the country's musical and dance tradition, incorporating New Orleans blues and jazz as the backbone of the performance. Then, bringing the program into the present, is Myelination.
Premiered just last fall, Myelination features a generous amount of solo improvisation from its dancers layered atop choreographed elements. At less than a year since the show's debut, Dorrance welcomes the opportunity to show off the company's newest creation, partly to allow the composition to grow and develop naturally on stage, while allowing other components of the work to solidify and deepen alongside older routines.
"I like that we're bringing back these older pieces that have never toured, really, and that I think are really valuable. Myelination is very current to me in that it's new music written by our wonderful musicians and there's not a really specific historical reference," says Dorrance. "Whereas Jungle Blues is this Branford Marsalis tune that is a New Orleans blues feel. I love this piece of music, and I've loved it for at least 15 years. Before I choreographed to it, I just had it in the back of my mind that I'd create something to it."
For Dorrance Dance's other main program to be featured at Spoleto this year, the company will showcase the technical expertise and experimental nature of longtime member Nicholas Young. Titled ETM: Double Down, the show relies on the company of tap dancers interacting with various electronic panels used to trigger various effects and musical instrumentation. Originally developed by Young as a solo project, the technical setup featured in the show stemmed from his interest in electronic music and desire for innovation.
"When I started to experiment, what I really wanted to do was try to preserve as much of the natural form, so that I could create musical environments or compositions — improvisationally or precomposed — in some way that I could then improvise over or along with, and ways that I could create compositions and then alter them in subtle ways," says Young. "Electronic music takes simple concepts or even simple musical patterns and allows them to evolve over a long period of time that creates tension and keeps the listener interested."
Beginning with guitar effects, pedals, and tap boards and moving on to more advanced software and triggers, Young developed the mechanics behind ETM before he was approached by longtime friend and collaborator Michelle Dorrance about putting together a large-scale production. Blending the use of electronic boards to create music with acoustic tap and specially crafted compositions, ETM: Double Down is the next step in a timeless art form.
"In a very simple way, it's a music concert. It's full-on rock 'n roll. We go there in the show. I'm not sure people always expect that from tap dance," says Young. "There's this constant battle that we're having as tap dancers where we're having to fight the stigma of nostalgia, that tap dance is a nostalgic art form that belongs in a certain time period."