Michelle Dorrance Takes the Pillow by Storm

Photo by Christopher Duggan
by Nicole Harris 

This summer Michelle Dorrance took the Pillow by storm.  Again.

Now, anyone who has ever talked tap dance with me knows that I am a huge Michelle Dorrance fan.  I think her work is thought provoking and technically inspiring.  Most people will tell you that she's one of the hardest working people they know, not to mention humble, generous and sweet as can be.  I am honored to have been one of a relatively small number of people who had the opportunity to see both last year and this year's Jacob's Pillow concerts.

Last year Michelle was the recipient of the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award.  With the award money she created a brilliant evening length work alongside musician Toshi Reagon and co-choreographers Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sombry-Edwards.  The overall work was beautifully crafted, visually stunning and musically captivating.  On top of that, each individual piece had the strength and integrity to stand alone.

Michelle and Nicholas in The Blues Project.
Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Much like last year, this year's show sold out weeks before Dorrance Dance hit the Massachusetts border.  I purchased the last available ticket and convinced my friend Patrick to come up from New York to go with me.  We drove out to western MA and ogled over the incredible landscape the Pillow calls home before we were ushered into our seats at the Doris Duke Theatre.

ETM: The Initial Approach was created by Michelle and Nicholas Van Young and performed by Michelle, Nicholas, Warren Craft, Karida Griffith, Demi Remick, Caleb Teicher, Leonardo Sandoval and b-girl Ephrat "Bounce" Asherie alongside musicians Donovan Dorrance, Aaron Marcellus and Greg Richardson.  One of the things that amazes me about Michelle is her ability to train so many talented dancers.  Her company, Dorrance Dance, has had more members than I can count over the last few years.  But instead of the work turning into a generic mash of talented tap dancers, her shows always maintain a true sense of "Michelle" while she simultaneously coaxes her dancers to find their own personality and voices within the work.

Nicholas Van Young in "ETM: The Initial Approach";
photo Christopher Duggan
Nicholas Van Young, a brilliant tap dancer and choreographer in his own right, has been cooking up some amazing electronics that he calls his "Compositional Tap Instrument."  If you saw Dorrance Dance here in Boston back in 2012 then you saw Nicholas' first solo using the ingenious tap board technology.  Not only can he change the sounds of the taps as they are amplified but he can record, loop and playback  phrases in real time while he's dancing.  This is the basic concept used in ETM: The Initial Approach.  Only image it being done with a whole ensemble of dancers and you might begin to get the idea of the sort of night we were in for.

Throughout the evening all lines were blurred.  Tap dancers played the drums, musicians looped and played back their riffs while accompanying their recorded selves, your traditional metal on wood tap sounds turned into electronic noises of every variety and the stage was constantly transformed as tap boards were moved in and out of the space in very well choreographed transitions.  Just when you thought that the electric tap boards were all you were going to get Michelle and Nicholas dug into their STOMP background and dancers were using metal grating and lengths of chain to create additional music.  It was an all out carnival of music and dance that you really didn't want to end.

Michelle Dorrance in "ETM: The Initial Approach";
photo Jamie Kraus, courtesy Jacob's Pillow Dance
While last year's show The Blues Project had a very clear setting and style for the entire evening, ETM ran the gamut of emotions.  There were definitely technical and sonic through lines to the evening but what really held it together for me was the sense that this show was incredibly personal.  Every person on that stage was going through something that we were simply being given the gift to catch a glimpse of before it moved along.

My favorite piece in the show was a duet performed by Demi and Caleb.  It had all the intimacy you find in a modern or contemporary duet with the quiet intricacies of two talented young tap dancers.  Personally, I often struggle with how to take the compositional tools I use in modern and transfer them to tap and I feel that Michelle accomplished this perfectly during this gorgeous duet.

I am always a fan of Ephrat, who is also an incredible choreographer, and her duet with Michelle towards the end of the show was another highlight for me.  Ephrat filled the show with a contagious sense of playfulness and her movement was a natural fit for Michelle's full bodied tap choreography.

I was a bit disappointed that we didn't get to see more of Nicholas tap dancing and towards the end I was beginning to tire of some of the vocals.  But across the board I give this latest Dorrance Dance adventure a HUGE thumbs up.  I just wish the didn't sell out so quickly so more of you could get the chance to see it.

Hey Michelle!  Come up to Boston more often, okay?

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