One of the hottest tap artists of her generation, 33-year-old Michelle Dorrance is known for creating tight, polished choreography within lively theatrical contexts — sometimes provocative, often laced with touches of offbeat humor. Tall and lanky, a charismatic solo performer, she can unfurl complicated, inventive rhythmic sequences with blistering speed and remarkable tonal color, yet sidle gracefully into a sweet soft-shoe.
Even so, when she learned she’d won the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, her first reaction was disbelief. “I said, ‘Isn’t there someone else you want to give this to?’ ” she recalls.
The award includes $25,000 in cash, and when Dorrance receives it at the festival’s June 15 opening gala in Becket, she’ll join the ranks of past recipients including Merce Cunningham and Bill T. Jones. In July, she will return to Jacob’s Pillow with her two-year-old company, Dorrance Dance/New York, to premiere a piece set to live music composed by Toshi Reagon. Tentatively titled “The Blues Project,” it loosely examines some of the historic parallels in the development of tap and blues.
Dorrance, says Ella Baff, the Pillow’s executive and artistic director, “is working on repertoire that explores new relationships between dance and music, a framework that is much more structured than most tap artists. And she has a versatility that shows she’s absorbed a lot of different generations and ideas from everywhere — from ballet, hip-hop, contemporary dance, from old-school tap, from the light and elegant style to the more popular contemporary style of hitting it hard. That’s given her a tremendous range.”
Dorrance started tapping at age 4 in the Chapel Hill, N.C., studio of her mother, M’Liss Gary Dorrance, a former dancer with Eliot Feld. She also studied ballet and played competitive soccer, influenced by her father, Anson Dorrance, who coached the United States women’s national soccer team. “But it was clear that tap was my passion and my gift, partly because it’s so musical,” she says, adding with a little laugh, “and partly because I had flat feet and was the only one in my ballet class who couldn’t do a split.”
At 8, Dorrance was taken under the wing of Gene Medler, founder of the famed North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. Dorrance performed and toured with the company for a decade before moving to New York in 1997. She graduated from New York University’s Gallatin School, where she created her own major, studying democracy and race in America, and using tap to illustrate “a true blend of cultures.” She also began performing in a number of tap groups. For four years, she was in the cast of “STOMP,” off-Broadway and on tour. She still fills in occasionally.
Tapper Josh Hilberman, an internationally known local favorite who’s a longtime Dorrance friend, colleague, and mentor, says her wide-ranging imagination is fueled by “an endless joyful energy.” Even as a teenager, “she had limitless technical ability,” he recalls; she was once dubbed “the noodle,” for a loose-limbed, “quirky, funny, gutsy, hard-driving style.”
Dorrance has performed with virtually every top tap figure on the scene today, and has made forays into television and fashion. An eye-popping promotional video for shoe designer Tabitha Simmons features Dorrance tapping in edgy spike-heeled pumps and boots, an experience she called “hilarious . . . and unbelievably hard.” In 2011, the year she founded her company, she won a Bessie Award for stretching the boundaries of the tap form. Last year brought a Princess Grace Award — the first ever given to a tap choreographer.
Dorrance’s other great love is music, which inspires most of her choreography, and her eclectic taste ranges from Big Maybelle and the Squirrel Nut Zippers to Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor. “It could be a pulse, a groove, the timbre of a particular instrument or voice — there’s so many different things that charge wanting to create something,” she says. “Music evokes story and character and abstract emotional journeys.” She taught herself to play guitar and bass, touring with a rock band at one point, and she aspires to learn to read music and study theory so she can start to compose.
She also takes a variety of dance classes, trying to absorb other kinds of movement and “tap into other dance forms,” she quips. “I like using the unpredictable, being surprised. And I love to work on the things I can’t do. People inspire me who are trying things I would never think of.”
But at the core is the tradition she shares with every dancer who has ever laced up a pair of tap shoes. “My generation has done a lot of exciting technical innovations, but it stands on the foundation of our master hoofers. I always wanted more people to see the possibilities of our form, wanted more to be out there for people to connect with, to move you as a human being, but illustrate the form as a powerful technical and musical entity. It’s accessible and unbelievably exciting. I still feel this mission to constantly spread an understanding and appreciation of the art form,” Dorrance says. “Every time I go onstage I want to redefine tap, to continuously move it forward.”
For more information:
At: Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, July 24-28.