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Putting tap where we wouldn’t expect it

(Courtesy of Michelle Dorrance)

Michelle Dorrance, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner and one of the world’s most distinguished tap artists, has a wild streak. It’s clear when she performs. She unleashes a storm of contradictory impulses — one minute she’s launching airborne, the next she’s skidding across the stage or thrashing out a rhythmic repartee with another dancer.

Maybe she’ll briefly hold the center — her whole body overrun with joy, arms winging and feet blurring in spasms of mad syncopations. But Dorrance never stays in one place for long.

What makes her such an innovative and invigorating force in the dance world is that she carries this exuberant unpredictability into her collaborations. She puts tap where we don’t expect it. Recently, this has included elite, season-opening fetes (American Ballet Theatre’s spring gala), the grandest venues and arts meccas (among them, the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater), and posh dance series (the Vail Dance Festival, to name just one).

Dorrance turns 39 on Sept. 12. She’s a youngster in the smallish realm of prominent choreographers, and in the even smaller one of prominent female choreographers. What presenters, directors and audiences respond to are the surprises in her work, alongside the sophistication, which makes her dances seem both timeless and experimental. In Dorrance’s pieces you might find a high-tech electronic floor that enhances the music of her dancers’ feet. Or maybe there’ll be a live funk-blues band, or flamenco dancers. Dorrance has knocked about, vaudeville-style, with Bill Irwin, the stellar clown. She’s made a site-specific work on the spiral ramp of New York’s Guggenheim Museum.

The upcoming season promises to be pivotal for her, with big names and major venues. ABT will unveil a new work by Dorrance during its fall season at Lincoln Center. In December, her company, Dorrance Dance, will make its debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a world premiere, which the tap dancer is creating as a BAM artist-in-residence. Her company will perform at New York’s City Center in the spring.

The ABT piece — which is Dorrance’s third featuring ABT dancers, and is a co-commission with the Vail Dance Festival — is unusual on two fronts. First, it’s not often that a female choreographer makes work for a major ballet troupe. (Her piece will be part of a program that addresses this; it’s devoted to women dance-makers.) And second, how often do you hear about a classical ballet company bringing in a tap choreographer?

Will the ballerinas tap? 

“No, I don’t plan on putting them in tap shoes,” Dorrance said, speaking recently from the Frankfurt airport in Germany en route to a tap festival in Dubrovnik, Croatia. “I’ll be asking these dancers to be percussive and musical. I love pushing people outside of their comfort zone. But how that will manifest is yet to be determined.”

This work builds on Dorrance’s August success at Vail, where she combined tap with Philip Glass music and with ballet and Memphis jookin dancers. 

 “I think it’s fun to help create with someone in a language that’s not my own,” she said. “That’s something I’ve always loved, even when I was younger. I’d be daydreaming, artistically, ‘What if they did this?’ ”

[Read about what dancers hear, see and sense from the stage]

 Ballet is not new to Dorrance; her mother had been a professional dancer and founded a ballet school in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Dorrance was a student. (Dorrance’s father is a longtime soccer coach at the University of North Carolina.)

But given her flat feet and lack of flexibility, “my gifts didn’t lie naturally with ballet,” Dorrance said. She was perfectly suited to tap, however, with natural coordination and rhythm. She’s too modest to add this, but I will: Her irrepressible ebullience is possibly her strongest feature.

Before forming her company, Dorrance danced with the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble and other tap groups, and she toured with “Stomp,” the percussive-dance and street-theater production whose performers make music from brooms, matchboxes, toilet plungers and other humble objects. That show’s openness to possibilities has stayed with her, along with the “yes, and” philosophy of improvisation — the practice of accepting whatever your partner offers, and building on it.

“I like pushing things in directions that are unexpected,” Dorrance said. “The full range of tap dancing is not understood. Hopefully, what I’m doing is with an eye toward respect and acknowledging tap dance as an art form and not just a form of entertainment.”

In 2015, she made a piece for the Martha Graham Dance Company, and there are surely works for other troupes to come.

“A handful of companies have reached out, but nothing is on the books yet,” she said. “I’m grateful that people are so open-minded. What I appreciate is that people, upon encountering tap dance in their world for the first time, are open-minded to it. And see promise in it.”

“Hotshot teacher-writer Paula Vogel is again at the head of the class.”

“Timothy O’Leary, WNO’s new leader, brings idealism, pragmatism and fundraising chops.”

“Some of the most substantial and rewarding art of the last half-century.”

“Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson’s jazz? It sounds like Stravinsky and the blues.”

“So long, Michael Scott. Here comes Steve Carell, Serious Actor.”

“Forget the cliches. The director behind the new ‘Beetlejuice’ musical is known for breaking the rules.”