Theater & art

Michelle Dorrance taps into a new soundscape at Jacob’s Pillow

Matt Sayles/Invision for The Herb Alpert Foundation/AP

During last summer’s Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Michelle Dorrance tapped her way into audience and critical acclaim with sold-out performances of “The Blues Project.” She also was awarded the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award as one of the most accomplished tappers of her generation, acclaimed for her extraordinary technical facility, versatility, and quirky creative imagination.

This summer, the festival invited Dorrance and her company back for a rare two-week engagement of another world premiere, titled “ETM: The Initial Approach.” Crafted in part during a residency at the Pillow, the new work features original tap dance instruments by co-creator and company member Nicholas Van Young, who was a lead member of Stomp for nine years. It also includes live vocals by former “American Idol” hopeful Aaron Marcellus, and a guest appearance by b-girl Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie.

The Globe caught up with Dorrance as she was driving from Manhattan to Jacob’s Pillow, navigating a rental van full of equipment through Harlem and the Bronx with good humor and impressively few expletives.


Q. So this new piece — “ETM: The Initial Approach” — what does the title mean?

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A. ETM is “electronic tap music,” like EDM — “electronic dance music.” A lot of the technology that Nicholas has developed and translated for tap dance is from electronic dance music.

Q. When I saw Nicholas with you two years ago, he was dancing on a platform with amplified pitch sensors and electronic loops. Has he expanded that?

A. Yes. Basically, that time in Arlington at the Regent Theatre was the very first time he ever performed using any of that technology. He’s done years of work finding the right software, the right triggers, all the puzzle pieces. And now I get to go and play in his world. We’re exploring a new soundscape and possibilities for tap dance as music, and tap dance creating music.

Q. So this is really different than anything you’ve ever done before. Is the electronic aspect the basic concept of the show?


A. No. For a big chunk of the show, we are working with acoustic sounds, too. We like that dichotomy. We’re really interested in both acoustic and electric and seeing how those sounds develop separately and how they blend, and we are interested in organic and inorganic sounds. We are both dancers and musicians, and we’re just embodying all those different ideas. To us, it’s all inside the same world. It’s all very connected.

Q. How has the technology influenced your actual dancing and choreography?

A. We’ll try to create phrases conducive to playing the instruments, and then sometimes I do something that’s musical to a certain melody we’ve created for the instruments. It’s almost impossible for some of the dancers to both trigger the instruments and play the choreography, so we have to make adjustments, and that’s fun. (Lord have mercy, Harlem is so slow!)

Q. You’re featuring Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie, who’s a b-girl. How has her energy and style affected the creation of the show?

A. It’s about exploring electronic music and elements of club music. Not a lot of people know the origins of breaking and house, but they’re rooted in tap and vernacular dance. All the early b-boys used to watch the Nicholas Brothers. It’s very congruent and natural, though stylistically we’re very different. Ephrat creates her own movement, but there’s some improvography to what she does. Our collaboration is like an artistic conversation.


Q. In some of your solo work, you often seem to be totally in the moment, like jazz tap, channeling the muse, playing off the music. But group pieces are pretty tightly choreographed, right?

‘We’re really interested in both acoustic and electric and seeing how those sounds develop separately and how they blend.’

A. They are two completely different things. I may give people notes and intention and a musical feel when I ask them to improvise because I trust their intuition in that moment, and it’s the same thing for myself. I trust myself to give myself that freedom. But when I want something specific, I don’t want anything else. But I want them to execute it with their particular style. I work with the dancers I work with because I like their individual styles, and even if something is tightly choreographed, I want their individual styles to bleed through. I play with my different dancers’ capabilities. There’s a work inside of the show that’s almost like a pas de deux for two of my multiform dancers, who are beautiful movers, both classically trained and also incredible tap technicians.

Q. Does humor play a part, as it does in so many of your works?

A. I’m sure people will find things humorous. I hope they do, but there’s nothing specifically pointed in that direction. I think it’s the nature of what we do, that there’s a great range of emotions.

Q. How does “ETM” unfold?

A. You gotta come see the show, girl! There’s no way for me to describe how the show unfolds. There’s some emotional journeys and also some musical journeys. The title is really it, this initial exploration of this world, this musical playground thanks to Nicholas Young.

Q. You’re only 34. What’s it like to have this kind of creative support and an opportunity to perform for a two-week run?

A. The Pillow gave us the opportunity to do a residency in March and use the studios in April, and we are so grateful for a situation in which we can set the instruments up and not have to take them down. Sometimes in Manhattan it’s an hour of loading and sweating in New York heat to rehearse in buildings with no elevators, so this is awesome. Who else [but the Pillow] would take this kind of chance on this show and be so supportive? It’s a magical place.

Karen Campbell can be reached at