NAC Dance: One step at a time with Michelle Dorrance

A scene from Jungle Blues by Dorrance Dance. Photo: Dana Lynn Pleasant

In our bodies, the nerves that connect our muscles and organs to our brains are coated with a sheath. This myelin protects our vital highway and it grows as we do, expanding as we reach for new heights.

That’s an interesting metaphor for a dancer/choreographer with the ambition and drive of Michelle Dorrance.

And it’s the central thought and purpose of a dance called Myelination that her company Dorrance Dance will present at the National Arts Centre on Feb. 29.

Dorrance is a passionate high priestess of tap and she is taking the art form in new directions all the time with the company she formed in 2011.

Michelle Dorrance.

She also expanding her own personal horizons. She’s currently working as a choreographer on her first Broadway musical. It’s called Flying Over Sunset and it will preview in March and formally open in April in the Lincoln Centre Theater.

“It’s a learning experience. There isn’t a ton of dancing but there are a number of pedestrian percussive things.”

In between rehearsals for the musical, her company is bringing three pieces to Ottawa: Jungle Blues, Three to One and Myelination, the featured piece.

“Jungle Blues and Three to One are really unique works within my repertoire. I really like that pairing. Jungle Blues fits very deeply into the tradition of tap. It has a New Orleans blues feel with a lot of improvisation in the horns inside the music. We work very specifically to those improvised solos.” Jungle Blues the music was written by the legendary Jelly Roll Morton.

“We have learned how to develop character out of that music. It sits in the jazz tradition and in a really idiosyncratic, often eccentric way.”

Three to One is contemporary with music by Richard D. Thomas and Thom Yorke of Radiohead.

“This piece investigates a much more modern alienation. The themes are starker and more current,” Dorrance said.

Myelination has a “much more emotional, forward vibe to it.

“We investigate more the building of myelin (in the body). In the development of the piece, we put technique and ideas into the work that were just out of our reach. The practice would be a part of expanding (our own) myelin. It’s an undercurrent that lives inside that we are pushing ourselves constantly.

“The great tradition of tap dance is one of dance as music and as musical development. We love a musical investigation just as much as the (pedestrian) movement. That practice behaviour of any kind, positive or negative, becomes part of the fabric of our bodies. It literally lives in the brain.”

It is interesting, she said, to investigate this physiological activity on an emotional and theatrical level.

“I think you can look at it and might not know what is going on but I think you can get a feeling for it and I much prefer that for an audience.” She noted that while she was developing this piece she was in a close relationship with someone with mental illness.

“So I didn’t want it to be too literal. Hopefully people can superimpose their own thoughts and experiences into the work.”

The idea for the piece started with her father, Anson.

“He is a women’s soccer coach. He won very first women’s world cup as coach of the U.S. women’s team in 1991. I was 11 and we were in China. It was very first women’s world cup, but we won in total obscurity, no one cared.

“Dad’s vision for women’s soccer was that it would literally take over the country and it did. I admire him for championing women athletes. I am in position I am today because I had parents that I did.” Her mother M’Liss Gary Dorrance was a ballet dancer with the American Ballet Company and The National Ballet of Washington, D.C. and she is the founder and director of the Ballet School of Chapel Hill

A scene from Myelination. Photo: Dana Lynn Pleasant

Her father recommended a book on the human body to her.

“What struck me was a discussion about how we develop skills physiologically. I learned in the book that humans stop developing new myelin in the mid to late 30s. And I was headed to 40 at the time.”

She says she thought, “if I am going to push myself I’m going to have to do it right now. And I want to push my dancers too. We hope to achieve a never ending ascension, as my dad would say, in our lives and career.”

Dorrance thinks deeply about her chosen profession. She is both an educator and a historian because of the discipline’s deep cultural history. It is rooted in dance forms from Africa and also from English clogging and Irish jigs.

“The history of American tap could live in any American studies class at a university level, it’s so fascinating.” Tap dance is also a story of appropriation and racism in America, she said.

“There is a feeling that tap is the underdog of the dance world; we are the bastard dance form. The dance form that makes all the noise; the one that leaves scuff marks on the floor.”

That has real world consequences, she said. “Literally renting space is a problem (for us) in New York.”

She has gotten grants that will eventually be used to buy a building just for tap because she can’t rent or lease space.

“People get kicked out. Buildings are torn down. The rents go up. There is so much that is not accepting of this art form. I would hope that some element of our government would help. Tap is one of the oldest forms of dance created here.

The thinking might be that “it’s from the people, so it can’t be art. It’s a people’s dance, yet it is one of the most sophisticated technical things that lives in dance on stage.”

As a child she was captured by the percussiveness of tap.

“My mom says I have always had a good ear for music. When I was two I am told I memorized an entire album of Christmas songs.”

At her mother’s dance school in North Carolina, there was a teacher named Gene Medler, who had fallen in love with tap.

More from Myelination with dancers Elizabeth Burke and Christopher Broughton. Photo: Matthew Murphy

In the early 1990s, he started a youth ensemble and she was in it. Not only did he teach the children how to tap, he brought them to festivals where elders of the form were present.

“We were very lucky as young people to meet these people.”

By age nine, she was in an advanced class. “It didn’t matter where I was I just loved it.”

Dorrance was also a musician even playing bass in an indie rock band that had some success. That influences her thinking about tap too.

You can imagine these Dorrance Dance taps as a musical performance. She sees it as “our development of the jazz tradition into something that is unique.”

Dorrance does perform regularly but she said she probably won’t be dancing in Ottawa.

“I’m trying to give young dancers who are on fire an opportunity. We are equal opportunity performers including myself. It’s a way to keep the work fresh. And it’s the same opportunity that was given to me.”

Dorrance Dance
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Feb. 29 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.