This weekend, MacArthur Fellow and Bessie Winner Michelle Dorrance returned to Jacob’s Pillow for a sold-out run featuring a world premiere and a newly extended hit from last year’s season in New York City. Joined by a troupe of ten (mainly) dancers and three (mainly) musicians, Dorrance’s renowned tap company continued to break down the borders of dance and music, presenting a coherent musical and danced program featuring a jazz combo of piano, synthesizer, drums, basses, and clarinets, songs accompanied by mandolin and brushes on metal, percussive footwork with a variety of taps and leather shoes, and a diverse selection of recorded selection from the American songbook. And, of course, some of the best American dancing of our time.
Massachusetts is home to America’s longest-running international dance festival, based at Jacob’s Pillow in the Berkshires (technically in Becket, but best accessed by taking Exit 2 at Lee and doubling back). Founded by dancer and choreographer Ted Shawn in the 1930s, the spacious, wooded site evokes a more intimate version of Tanglewood, with exhibits and free dance activities throughout the day during the summer season.
This year’s 86th season presents more than 50 dance companies and over 350 free and ticketed performances, concerts, talks, classes, exhibits, and community services. Students from the School at Jacob’s Pillow attend all professional performances and audition for the chance to train under up-and-coming stars like Dorrance. One of the most fascinating ways to provide context for an event at the Pillow (in addition to the excellent printed notes and short pre-show introductions) is to seek out the internationally- and stylistically-diverse students and pump them with questions about workshops, private coachings, and new choreographies.
Since June 2017, the Pillow is transitioning to a year-round facility: it has already started an Administrative Fellows Program, maintains an historic archive of rare videos open to the public, and is growing its education department. Before and after all mainstage events, visitors may peruse a historic collection of classic dance-themed movie posters in Blake’s Barn. Over s0 beautiful paintings and engravings from the collection of award-winning designer Mike Kaplan bring to life classic films and dancers like Fred Astaire, Josephine Baker, Gene Kelly, and other screen legends.
A dynamic outdoor performance by Calpulli Mexican Dance Company on the newly refinished Inside/Out Stage preceded Wednesday’s mainstage events. Celebrating the rich diversity of Mexican and Mexican-American cultural heritage, the group presented a series of contrasting percussive footwork and regional partner dance. Mexican regional music has developed into several regional styles, differentiated by instrumentation, singing style, repertoire, and use of language. Son is the main secular folkloric music genre; it originated from a fusion of Spanish, African, and indigenous music.
The show included excerpts from Calpulli’s Boda Mexicano (Mexican Wedding), developed over 15 years by the family of dancers, musicians, and teachers that contribute to the ensemble. Even the company’s name (Calpulli is Aztec for “clan”) emphasizes their collaborative nature. Musical selections included son jalisciense (from the lowlands of Jalisco and Colima), a brisk son jarocho (from Veracruz), son arribeño (from the Sierra Gorda), and son calentano (from the Balsas River basin in southern Mexico). Since the late eighteenth century, these styles share a compound meter accompanied by foot-stomping zapateado patterns to emphasize rhythmic shifts.
Dorrance’s company gradually took the stage in the Ted Shawn Theater, emerging from the audience for a post-apocalyptic story in several small scenes narrated by silent-movie style placards. Imagine a world destroyed by fire, in which only four artists remain to tell our stories, to remind us of lessons we should have learned, and to warn us about the future…
Beginning her training with the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble under Gene Medler, Dorrance studied under many of the last master hoofers. Before founding her own company and becoming a Jacob’s Pillow favorite, she danced with STOMP, Savion Glover, Jason Samuel Smith, and Darwin Deez. In 2015, the Martha Graham Dance Company commissioned her to make a new variation on Graham’s landmark 1930 solo Lamentation, and she has developed many of her best dances as a visiting choreographer at the Vail Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow. New York’s Guggenheim Museum commissioned her to create something site specific in 2017: she placed the audience on Frank Lloyd Wright’s spiraling ramps (seven stories of seating) with participants on the floor (ranging from hoofers to break dancers) undertaking rhythmically complex patterns that brought the acoustics of the rotunda to life. Many listeners remarked that the building might be as well-suited to concerts as to its expected mission (displaying modern art): I marveled later that my most enjoyable hour in that museum, after decades of visits on the ramps facing the “art,” has turned out to be the hour spent facing away from the “art,” watching and listening to Dorrance’s masterful choreography.
This week at Jacob’s Pillow, Dorrance’s audience reacted strongly to the world premiere of All Good Things Come to an End, shouting with laughter, swaying during a moving depiction of refugees in a stormy sea (combining fast, continuous tapping, a recording of a rainstorm, and a moving version of the African-American spiritual Deep River). They gasped at sudden dramatic shifts in her three-legged “Cane and Abel” parable, and shed a few tears in hushed silence at the play of beauty (and ugly) in Michelle Dorrance’s heartbreaking “Ugly Duckling.” Cane and Abel” a play on the standard tap dancers prop of a cane, added the vertical tapping of a cane to the dancer’s two feet, and this duet à 6 percussion instruments (two canes and four feet) needs to be transcribed for percussion ensemble. It provides a microcosm of the heights contemporary American dancers can reach as musicians: classical elements such as theme, development, stretto, and recapitulation vied with postmodern minimalist sections to achieve a pleasing overall musical design. Artie Shaw and Fats Waller recordings backgrounded most of the numbers, but the a cappella sections (percussive sounds unaccompanied by other instruments) proved most engrossing.
For this world premiere, three other dancers joined Dorrance: Hannah Heller (a featured soloist in Savion Glover’s ti dii), Melinda Sullivan (a featured dancer in La La Land and So You Think You Can Dance Top 10 finalist), and Josette Wiggan-Freund (creator of two solo roles for Cirque de Soleil) all took on solos and ensemble character parts that added to the humor, poignancy, and virtuosity audiences have come to expect from Dorrance herself. This heavier, more musically-driven, fully choreographed style of 21st-century tap dancing sets new standards for endurance, power, and percussive variety. The Berkshire Edge has just published an illustrated essay in which images of Dorrance’s choreography from Carolyn Newberger’s sketchbook traces the origins and development of individual scenes HERE.
A newly expanded version of Dorrance’s Myelination, first seen/heard at New York’s City Center in 2015, rounded out the evening. With a musical score commissioned by Charles and Joan Gross Family Foundation, this 40-minute, multi-section number offered several highly contrasting scenes, beautifully lighted by two-time Bessie Award winner Kathy Kaufman. This is a large ensemble piece, recalling some of Mark Morris’s early efforts: it featured additional choreography by Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie (recent faculty at Wesleyan and 2016 Bessie Award winner) and Matthew “Megawest” West (a hip hop and b-boy competitive dance specialist). Company dancers included NAACP AST-SO award winner Christopher Broughton, rehearsal director Elizabeth Burke, ABT-trained dancer and drummer Warren Craft, Deutsche Oper Berlin dancer Claudia Rahardjanoto, Brazilian tap virtuoso Leonardo Sandoval, former Janet Jackson and Nicki Minaj backup dancer Byron Tittle, and Gabriel Winns Ortiz, who toured worldwide with Tap Kids and directs his own group called the Students of Sound.
The score for Myelination, composed collaboratively by Dorrance’s brother Donovan playing lead keyboards and clarinet), Gregory Richardson (playing electric bass, acoustic bass, and clarinet), and Aaron Marcellus (on synthesizer and diverse, often wordless vocals), paired seamlessly with the dancers rhythmic compositions. The newly extended work relies heavily on non-standard meters, with extensive sections in 5/8, 7/8, and 2+2+2+3/8. Marcellus’s singing enlivened the mostly minimalist and trance-music infused composition with scat singing, multi-phonics, and a variety of ethnic/world vocal styles.
The solo highlight featured Nicholas Van Young, the rehearsal director and leading dancer for STOMP for over a decade: he performed extremely fast sequences that defied and challenged the eye and ear. Van Young possesses a comic gift as well, shaping phrases that build both dramatically and musically. As he tours professionally both as a dancer (with Manhattan Tap, Rhumba Tap, Michelle Dorrance, and Beat the Donkey) and a drummer (recently for Darwin Deez), Van Young added skill and style to the choreographed/danced numbers, and then joined the musical ensemble on drums (playing simultaneously in mixed meters) for the finale.
Dorrance Dance finishes its Jacob’s Pillow residency this weekend and then moves to the Vail Dance Festival, where they will present The Blues Project with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely, premiered at the Pillow in 2013. More HERE.
Daily programs on the Pillow’s Becket campus continue through the summer. More HERE.
Ed. Note: In response to a useful comment from the artist’s husband, we have identified the “Dorrance Sketchbook” as the work of Carolyn Newberger.
A longtime advocate of new music, Prichard is a regular pre-opera speaker for the San Francisco Opera and Boston Baroque. She has taught courses on music and theater history at Northeastern University and UMass-Lowell.