Works & Process Rotunda Project: Michelle Dorrance with Nicholas Van Young, 16 Feb 2017, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Rotunda. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Full interview transcript of
[中][ENG]《踢躂常新》Dorrance & Young: Keeping It Fresh by Tom Brown
Date and Venue: 25 February 2017 HKAP Lyric Theatre
Tom Brown (T) – Chief Editor of dance journal/hk
Michelle Dorrance (M) - Co-Choreographer of ETM: Double Down
Nicholas Van Young (N)- Co-Choreographer of ETM: Double Down
The Blues Project, Michelle Dorrance performing at the Jacob's Pillow Festival. Photo: Christopher Duggan
Nicholas Van Young performing in ETM: The initial approach. Photo: Christopher Duggan
T: You have said tap history is not supported in academic studies and you have also said the history of tap can be seen in the bodies of practitioners, in the steps and movements they make. What do you see as the connections between that verbal cognition and kinetic cognition of tap as a dance style and, as an artist, and an educator, what do you see is the importance for an artist in gaining both types of knowledge?
M: Honestly, I want to say that is the great challenge any teacher has to traverse, this is the mountain to ascend. In part, tap dance as a cultural history and as a form is not truly embodied inside the institutions of higher learning, it absolutely is not embodied in the elementary, middle school, or high school learning inside the United States. We are lucky to find a program, whether it is a dance program, a history program, or an American Studies program that embraces the history of this particular art form as a part of what is an undeniable definition of the fabric of American culture, which it is. To me this is so strong to be this thing. It’s unprecedented, there is nothing like it before or since. It lays such a tremendous foundation for what was to come after its inception that it’s a shame that it is not more embraced academically only because it is such a visceral and poignant physical example of a blending of the cultures that literally defines America. And what a shame, truly.
And now what we have are the generations that were left with, not just this generation but also the generation ahead of ours, we were handed these really poignant stories, and masterful tools and a great breadth and depth of subtlety and nuance inside of a technical form but also an emotional and cultural form and all we can do is to continue to pass that down. Not only technically but also culturally and historically. It remains an oral form because of those factors I mentioned before, that it is not embraced [in academia].
I don’t think it necessarily needs to be codified in a way that will hinder its growth but there is so much that just isn’t even defined or understood in a more sophisticated way, except for the way that we embody it as practitioners. There is a handful of folks that have been anywhere from a novice practitioner to intermediate practitioner that have turned into writers or scholars, but it is rare that a masterful practitioner has also turned into a scholar or historian. Particularly my generation – a little bit older, a little bit young – we’ve been influenced by these great masters, namely Honi Coles, Cholly Atkins, the Nicholas Brothers, the Condos Brothers - those who were alive around our time, Henry LeTang. These great choreographers as well, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde, these master stylists and technicians, Jeni LeGon. These folks that literally had a huge impression upon us and the folks before us – Brenda Bufalino, Dianne Walker, Barbara Duffy, Ted Levy, even Gregory Hines, and then down to Savion Glover, who was a great conduit for so much information, and so much technique, music, history, and culture. We have this – it’s almost a blessing, but it is truly a responsibility to pass on not only the technique but the history behind why this is executed this way or why your teacher taught it this way and this teacher taught it that way, it’s because of these two very specific stylists that moved through a form. There is just so much beautiful and rich history that has to do with, [it being] such an American form. It’s an improvisational form, it also has a lot to do with the jazz tradition which it precedes but is both a part of and maybe an instigator for. The history of tap dance really reflects the history of, what I think, the most beautiful part of our realizing what the American ideal of democracy, the ideal of what human experience can possibly be. If we don’t acknowledge that inside of this form, which is largely African but with a huge Irish and European influence – in various techniques and execution. If we don’t acknowledge the fact that this happened in this place because of these crazy things that were happening at the time – insurmountable oppression in slavery, and, you know, just the growth and mass expansion of the times – none of this would have come to fruition. It is unique, as is hip-hop, as are a lot of these street forms that come from American culture, because so much of American culture and industry commenced as first this thing that was unplanned and, I don’t want to say happenstance, but then it was an explosion, it was truly moving through, what would have been a century of culture and technology and industry inside of a decade. We all know [about] the industrial revolution and various things like that. Tap dance is related to that particular history as well – it reflects a constant effort towards, pushing oneself, survival, individualism. There’s so many different themes of what would be American culture inside the form itself.
T: From your perspective as an artist and as an educator, how important is verbal cognition and understanding the stories. You do get resistance I think, sometimes, from students saying “I don’t want to do that. I want to dance.”
M: For sure, and sometimes with students, only because of a lack of emotional relationship to it. As soon as you draw them in, oh my gosh! you see their eyes light up. As soon as you connect something they have been executing to something that has a greater depth. Young people are so open-minded, what is shocking to me is that continuously dance departments or history department, academia, doesn’t [address tap]. Whether, in part, because of a great, larger academic trajectory of what is supposed to be codified, or a cannon of a particular study. It’s interesting to see a discomfort in a generation that is not used to opening themselves to a certain practice. Tap dance is such a sophisticated and nuanced but simultaneously forward moving, and innovative, and improvisational practice that it’s too many things at once. Jazz music is this, but it was embraced underneath a larger European sensibility because of this classical trajectory.
M: Nicholas and I were really lucky to meet when we were teenagers at one of these gatherings of our community when we were young. The only reason I am so charged with all this information and material and literally these human beings told us their stories and then died – and that’s me being kind of grotesque about it. Had we not experienced being 14 and 15 and watching Peg Leg Bates pass away, and then watching Harold Nicholas pass away, and then watching Leonard Reed pass away, and then watching Fayard Nicholas pass away, and then watching James Buster Brown pass away, and Jimmy Slyde pass away, and Jeni LeGon pass away.
If we hadn’t known these people and they hadn’t been kind of razzing us and saying, “clean up your left foot and shuffle and in the meantime, let me tell you the story, about when me and Cab Calloway were on a tour”, it was just an unbelievable amount of information both culturally and technically. And, you know the ‘old school’ way of learning and embodying something was to have someone sort of sitting in the corner, and if you were worth their time, they would call you out personally in the middle of a class and embarrass the shit out of you, but that was a great compliment. Sort of in the way there is a bullying ballet mistress in certain environments, there were these almost hecklers that are master dancers that we were lucky enough to be exposed to when we were teenagers and that is also when we were lucky enough to be brought together as young people in the United States, he’s from Texas and I’m from North Carolina. We would go to St Louis Tap Festival and meet these great masters. His mentor Acia Gray, mine mentor Gene Medler, they were these great teachers that sought the same education and they weren’t the kind of teachers that wanted to be better than their students they would say “Come on in show me if you get it before I do”. In part, it was such a rush to embrace and embody what these incredible masters were offering before they passed away. So, the early- to mid-1990s to late-1990s, it was a really special time in our lives and I think in tap history.
T: You know you talked about a heckler, master heckler. There is a tradition in West African dance of people goading another member in the party and they have to come out from the circle and dance.
M: That is only an incredible precedent to hear the story inside our community.
T: And I guess what you were saying is that teaching those parts – that verbal cognition and kinetic cognition – is effective when they’re connected. That is the secret to that kind of engendering passion from the students about that.
M: I would agree, to be able to be both a practitioner and a historian – and I have to say like we, myself, Nicholas, folks who are a little bit our elders, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Derick K. Grant, our peers Jason Samuels Smith, Chloe Arnold, we have a generation of us, that are very much historians and practitioners simultaneously and I think that is one of the great charges in our life.
T: And that’s not true in other forms of dance. I don’t think. I don’t know why that’s not true but who knows. Let me ask a question out of sequence that Nicholas also can respond to. Your dancers, I understand, are all accomplished musicians, I know that you play the bass, and you are percussionist?
M: Nicholas is really a masterful percussionist, I am a novice bass player. I keep time, so I can play with it. That’s not to say I haven’t done it on stage. My technical understanding of both vocal embodiment and bass, they are novice in relationship to his. Nicholas has study, I cannot tell you, the breath of hand, and body, and physical percussion, that’s incredible.
T: Well, you’ve called tap visual rhythm and kinetic rhythm. I know Nicholas grew up artistically in a fusion company, Tapestry. Even though, it’s stress in the past decade has been tap principally, right?
N: Yea, tap and body percussion. Really actively pursuing both [tap and body percussion] as a part of my voice, like they have both equally become.
T: And your mother is a ballerina and ballet teacher. Do you think or have you experienced, the learning of tap having a positive impact on learners of other dance styles in terms of understanding musicality?
M: The one compliment my mom would give me, because I have flat feet and not a very great aptitude for flexibility or embodiment of the form. She’d go, “Oh, honey, you always on the music.” But that was the one compliment my mom would give me, honestly! Because she was a professional, so she knew – “Oh this poor kid”. She’d go “You’ve got your father’s feet”. I knew as a ten-year-old that I wasn’t, even probably even corps de ballet material because she knew what it took. But she would say “You’re very musical”. She would always give me this one compliment.
Nicholas, was like this beautiful modern dancer like this dude was a classical dancer the way I could never have been. So that he ended up becoming drum, body percussion, whatever guy was totally his choice. He could have continued to be whatever and just gotten into David Dorfman’s company and we would have never seen him again. But thank God, he stayed close to what we do.
Michelle Dorrance & Nicholas Van Young. Photo: Matthew Murphy
T: And you join the company when you were 16, Tapestry?
T: So, tell us about that. So, you came in as a modern dancer or a tap dancer?
N: No, I came into as a tap dancer. It’s funny we often get that question in reverse. Like how do other dance forms affect tap dancers. You know we always got that question, but I don’t think we had gotten that question how does tap dance influence other forms. But that’s great.
T: I studied tap when I was a kid. Three years old and I attribute my musicality to that.
N: Yea, for sure. I mean Tapestry that experience really, and the people I met through their training, their program, and how diversify it was and the artistic community in Austin at the time is really, in every way shaped, who I am as an adult artist. The people I met through that program were the ones that first got me involved in playing music socially, which led me to want to study thing in a more direct light. Tapestry was full multiform company. And it was very structured, which was fantastic. We had a space, we had a studio, so for twelve years in my life, I was in ballet class every morning at 9 am, four hours of rehearsals, and then teaching for three to four hours after that every single day until I moved to New York and it was fantastic.
I think as I become a teacher. . . I had an experience – something that came to my mind is when I was 19, I was one of the few select artists to be taken to Cyprus, as part of this arts exchange. And the person that brought us was the director of the Ballet Austin at that time, [Lambros Lambrou] he was from Cyprus, so he would do this exchange program. I was there as a tap dance soloist, but I was there teaching modern dance, which is kind of crazy at nineteen, and set a piece, which was great. I did a tap solo with a saxophonist, which was great. He [Lambrou] set a ballet piece on me, a ballet piece, and he was saying something in Cypriot to some of the other classes, and after I was like, “what’s he saying, what’s he saying?” He was saying, he would accept me into the Ballet Austin immediately, without any audition, based on the solo. And I was like that’s really sweet and I asked him why. And he said, because I didn’t count a single thing to and I didn’t have to say one single count to you. He was just singing music to me. And I think that’s when I realized that everything, all movement, to me, had a musical rhythm based. I can deal with counts but everything always felt like [singing the rhythm] ‘Sooo, Waaa, Seconn, Scaa, Dum, Dum, Dum’, whatever was always that connection to me. So, for me, all dance is musical or rhythmic. Some of the first times I saw [Merce] Cunningham, when it was really kind of abstract musical stuff, I didn’t have an appreciation for it at the time because I didn’t see the connection of dance and music.
T: There wasn’t any. (Laugh)
M: And so often, the music was added after the dance.
T: They separate.
M: And when I learned about the post-modern music and dance. I was like “Oh God!”
T: Only Cunningham.
N: Now I have a lot of appreciation for that.
M: In part because it challenges the very core of what we knew.
N: Yea, there is also whole musical studies that are based on a similar philosophy that I find really fascinating. A lot of classical composers are doing things like that, which I find really interesting. But for me they’re inseparable and when I work with kids in other forms of dance, and especially in body percussion – I think body percussion is something we should put in, not only every single dance school, I think it should be in every elementary school. When I work with musicians in schools doing body percussion and tap dance stuff, to see how that transcribes. . .
M: Kids are so empowered by it and there are so many skills to be learned. Here’s the truth, we’re here doing a show, but Nicholas came in November with a fellow tap colleague from Tokyo and that shows you how global the community is.
N: They’re coming tonight.
M: I am so hyped. Nicholas you’ll have to take an extra-long solo.
There are so many things that are at your fingertips when you start learning body percussion that aren’t in other dance forms and aren’t even in somethings that are . . . Tap dance, even the root of the technique is sophisticated. It’s hard. It’s very challenging. Nicholas wrote me in November, “Gosh you wouldn’t believe how hard a shuffle step is”. Whereas stomp, and clap, and chest, these are easier things to understand because it’s your hand making a connection with your body, foot to floor, hand to hand. There are these things that are innate inside of the way we all move our bodies and execute as human beings.
So, it’s grooved based, pattern based, and you can get three groups of kids, doing a counterpoint or a polyrhythm and it’s sophisticated and they also, after doing it for a while, they get it, and they can feel it, and they can hear each other.
N: Then they really start to attach the musicality to the tap dance as well. Then they’re really understanding the connection, seeing it is not steps anymore. It definitely becomes music and I think the two of them together really work out.
I’m really excited about them coming tonight. The transformation of these kids was unbelievable. I mean they couldn’t do a grape vine they weren’t doing jazz squares, they were so uncoordinated. Especially because they were wanting a twenty-minutes piece. Setting a twenty-minute tap piece on professional tap dancers would be. . .
M: A huge challenge.
T: And how did you have?
M: 18 hours! Not even!
N: All together 16 or 18 hours. Something like that. Over the course of a few weeks. And some of those are back to back six hour day. So, you know, the last three hours, the kids are just fried.
M: How much do kids embody when they are fried. They are learning academics, and they are not doing other things. I’ve got to give it to Nicholas, as an empowering teacher. I got here, and these kids were clean, and he and [Nusha?] go, “No but Michelle, you don’t understand they were really struggling when we were here before, and the really got it together”.
T: Well, I have a question related to that. Michelle, you said the tap is a uniquely American art form that derives from, among other sources, Irish step dance and African dance. The former upright, the upper body still, the latter rooted in the ground with more expressive possibilities in the upper body, with tap being characterized by syncopation and polyrhythm. I have two questions around that.
The second question, I’ll give you first because it ties in with what you are saying. Although it may be uniquely American, it has had international practitioners for generations. ISTD, Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing and ATOD, Australian Teachers of Dance and Glenwood, an Australian school, all have graded syllabuses in tap dance. You’ve participated in the Stockholm Tap Festival. Here in Hong Kong, we have a small but avid group of accomplished tap artists and a tap dance company called R&T (Rhythm & Tempo), who have regular exchanges with Japanese and Taiwanese, I mean incredible, tappers.
M: Yes, and they are all here. The Taiwanese are here, the Japanese are here, and of course the local artists. They were all in class today. Loved them all being together.
T: Many of our tappers have gone to the festival abroad, especially in the United States. Is this international embrace of the art form reflected in its development? That’s my question.
M: Oh, undoubtedly
T: And do you see stylistic differences in tappers that reflect the cultural background of the tapper?
M: I think Nicholas and I can both attest to a number of different observations of various linages, in part because we were so hyper-aware of the ways a very codified style would move through a school of dancers. So, for instance, and I’ll use this as just one example of what would be many examples, but one very identifiable example is - there is a man named Maceo Anderson, he was one of The Four Step Brothers [Maceo Anderson, Al Williams, Red Walkers, and Sherman Robertson]. Step Brothers were a great act of vaudevillians. He taught, he was a direct mentor and teacher of Robert L. Reed, Sr., who is the founder and director of the St. Louis Tap Festival, and that’s why Nicholas and I met, and why all these masters were brought together every Summer. And he had two kids, Robert Jr. and Robin, and you can see the way the style moved from Maceo, through Robert, through Robert Jr. and Robin, and then also, of course, into what was the Saint Louis Hoofers, which was a young group of kids, then of course turned over, they all graduated, and continued to live their lives. And this is the same of North Carolina and kind of the same in Texas with Tapestry even though that company was more professional than these youth ensembles I’m mentioning.
There was this way of filtering these particular styles of a given master while supplementing other styles, rhythms, and other ideas with a larger knowledge of the form, and handing that on. But you better believe, these kids, these Saint Louis Hoofers, they knew all those Step Brothers riffs, they knew their ‘over-the-tops’ that were very specific to them. They all knew these particular sequences, that none of the rest of us knew, and we watch them and we are “Oh, there’s that dope stuff that the Saint Louis kids know. Ah what is that?” [sotto voce] I remember seeing them doing their ‘over-the-tops’ and ‘trenches’ and they were a little bit cooler or different from our regular B.S. Chorus or whatever we knew. So that is one example that I can give you of [seeing] Maceo’s direct influence right there. Prince Spencer is another man who is part of The Four Steps Brothers [he replaced one of the original group], who had a relationship to Robert. What I can tell you as a distant observation, Nicholas, and Acia had this relationship to Eddie Brown, whose is one of our masters. The way Nicholas executes Eddie’s rhythms and compositions is related to a very specific period of his life and some of these guys were so old that they were known to change what they did. So, it’s like “Oh, you know that early 1990s version of the Eddie Brown’s B.S. Chorus versus what he taught to those guys in LA that time he went and did a residency there”. I mean it’s that drastic. So, there’s that and various other influences that weaved their ways into our lives. I feel that it is a really important example of the way things are passed on, embodied, and become a part of our history through various master stylists.
T: In terms of the culture, for example, the Taiwanese and Japanese dancers, do they bring something else [to tap dance], or the European dancers?