New York-based Dorrance Dance modernizes the traditions of tap dancing by performing on electronic trigger boards, creating a new and electrifying soundscape.
The company makes a tour stop in San Diego on Wednesday to present “ETM: Double Down,” an ArtPower presentation at UC San Diego.
“ETM” stands for “electronic tap music,” and this show introduces an innovative relationship between dance and sound.
Every aural nuance of the tap technique has been mastered by company founder Michelle Dorrance, who crafts ensemble works that tell musical stories.
“It’s important to live in the world of slaps and shuffles and brushes,” explains Dorrance, who became a MacArthur “genius grant” fellow in 2015. “But a lot of the vocabulary lives between those styles.”
Dorrance says her instrument of choice is a tap shoe known as the Capezio K360 because it “most accurately represents my voice.”
She alternates between two, well-worn pairs. One is a single leather sole, which is lightweight and good for articulated work. The other pair has a double half sole, providing added weight in the toe.
“Imagine a drummer playing with lighter or heavier drumsticks,” Dorrance says. “When you add a double sole, things are easier with a certain bounce off the floor. The double half sole is a perfect balance.”
Dorrance decided to launch her own company in 2010, after breaking her foot.
“I realized, on the heels of that break, that the time is now. I was thinking there are some things I want to explore with my own body … choreographic ideas, rhythmic ideas. Giving my energy for a project I believe in is really powerful, but I had never prioritized my own compositional, choreographic voice. I realized if I want to start doing this, I want to be able to embody it, to physically create it.”
“ETM: Double Down” is collaboration between Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, a master tap teacher and musician.
He met Dorrance when they were teenagers — back when he says the tap community was a smaller group of professionals who attempted to attend every tap dancing festival and tuned into each other’s professional careers.
“Michelle and I were kids — about 14 or so,” says Van Young, who plays drums and choreographed one of the show’s numbers.
“We shared apartments and taught together. We performed in the touring show ‘Stomp’ for several years together.”
The technology for “ETM: Double Down” was inspired by Van Young’s electronic ideas.
When the eight-member company dances on boards wired for sound, musical notes and effects are created.
“I did a lot of the designing of the hardware we use in the show and the process in which we interface with the program,” Van Young says.
“I developed little trigger boards, like an electronic drum set. In real time, I could create a composition. I might have a bass sound, a synth sound with a delay and then different types of vocals. I also had different boards and devices I could use to manipulate the music — very much like a live producer.”
The company dances to a mix of musical genres in the show — original compositions by Donovan Dorrance (Michelle’s brother) and Van Young, along with songs by Adele, folk group Bon Iver and indie rock artist Patrick Watson.
Tradition and history continue to influence Dorrance, who stays mindful of the advice of her mentor, Gene Medler, founder of the North Carolina Tap Ensemble and director of the North Carolina Rhythm Tap Festival.
“He would tell us, ‘Remember, dance to express, not to impress,’” Dorrance recalls.
“There is this great youthful charge of getting faster and making something harder and creating something that is more innovative because it’s more challenging. When really, if you are creating to make music and to express yourself, there is an honesty and vulnerability there that others will relate to in the end.”
ArtPower presents Dorrance Dance in “ETM: Double Down”
When: 8 pm. Wednesday, May 15
Where: Mandeville Weiss Theatre, UC San Diego, Revelle Entrance, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.
Tickets: $30-$50, discounts for ages 5 to 17
Phone: (858) 534-8497
Manna is a freelance writer.