Since she was a 15 year-old prodigy making my choreography look much better than it actually was, Michelle Dorrance has been one of my favorite dancers on the planet. 20 years later, the imaginative, hilarious, technically limitless, award-winning dancer and artistic director of the highly-heralded company Dorrance Dance, is still just as fresh, funny, and brilliant as ever. After 5 days together inside her working brain, I conclude that Michelle is like a drug: you get a little bit of her, and you just end up craving more.
On Sunday afternoon, however, my collaborator is nowhere to be seen, having spent the last night of our project together in Berlin alternating biological explosions with sleeping in the bathtub. Wasn’t it enough that she hobbled off the airplane with a broken foot? It is 3:34 on a Sunday afternoon–one hour into what should be Michelle’s beginner class, 5 hours into my bizarre work day–and I am teaching a soft shoe while trying to figure out who can finish my class as there is not doubt that MY stomach is about to erupt again.
As a man dying of thirst in the desert will conjure an oasis, she appears like a mirage: Michelle staggers into the dimly-lit room at the very moment I know my teaching day must end. I thank the students for their patience, tell them Michelle will finish the class with the soft-shoe break they have requested (she, staring blankly, asking ‘What break? The Gregory break?’ I am already walking out of the studio saying, ‘Any break. Figure it out. You’re qualified’). On the 5-minute walk back to the apartment I scour the landscape for good places to puke publicly; thankfully the eruption comes only after I am up the stairs, through the door, into the bathroom.
We have gathered in Berlin at Anina Krüger’s Blue Tap Studio for a first-time collaborative four day workshop, and the 4th incarnation of my All Tap Dancers Band. An amazing, skilled, lively, curious two dozen dancers from Germany, Romania, Canada, Sweden, Holland–and notably a raucous and patriotic Norwegian contingent–have signed on for the grand experiment.
Producer, dancer, friend and bass player Anina Krüger hosts the event at her inimitable studio Blue Tap; I cannot thank her enough for the opportunity, the support, the months of work and planning that lead up to the weekend. She supports tap dance in so many ways—especially by having one of the best floors and coolest working spaces anywhere, and as we approach 20 years of working together, I appreciate her–and her fantastic crew of dedicated volunteers–more and more.
Best friend and long-time collaborator Rose Giovanetti (taps/ukulele/vocals) comes from Boston; my German brothers Kurt Albert (taps/percussion) and Klaus Bleis (taps/drums) arrive with cars full of equipment; a special mention must be given Klaus, who has organized the music for the band and who drives all over Berlin upon arrival, gathering sound equipment and making a late-night trip to the airport to pick up the hobbling Dorrance.
My wife Stéphanie takes a few days off from her day job (playing piano in arenas packed with thousands of people) to play ukulele, including a beautiful solo; melody and improvisation on the violin; sing and arrange vocal harmony; tap dance; and oh, yes, play piano for me on Tea for Two. (Steph’s dizzying array of musical talents can sometimes induce a reaction much like the stomach flu.)
A year ago, when Michelle and I first hatched the plan to co-teach a workshop, we didn’t imagine injuries or viruses. We were looking for an excuse to spend some time together in the studio. We have known each other some 30 years, since Michelle was just the little girl whose mother taught me ballet and cast me in my first modern dance performance, back in Chapel Hill, NC. At the Ballet School, tap classes were taught by the guru Gene Medler; the rest, as far as Michelle’s career goes, is history.
At some point in my annual journeys back home to the NC Rhythm Tap Festival, I began bringing the teen-aged Michelle onstage for a duet. Hastily planned between classes and shows, usually in a parking lot, we would come up with a tune and a little arrangement, go on stage and play together. We staged a high-heel challenge, we sat on the edge of the stage and played a love song: we jammed, we danced, we laughed. In Dusseldorf in 2005 we worked out a ukulele/harmonica duo, and accompanied each other on a blues while the other tapped. Marginal music, exceptional tap dancing: a model for the All Tap Dancers Band.
The broken foot kind of spoils our plan to simply trot out Michelle–a singular artist in the history of the form–every few numbers in front of the band and wait for raucous applause. Even more painfully, she sits though hours of dance rehearsals of the aged hoofers: we her colleagues average now exactly 50 years old, and running through the dances takes longer and longer, with poorer results. Truly gracious, she sets about learning ukulele parts, working up vocals on Tonight You Belong to Me, resting her foot and wryly observing middle-age in process. She grunts some disapproval at a sloppy transition on my Capella Josh.
Dorrance and I agree that dancers learning tap dance today suffer from a real lack of diversity in training. So much work of the under-40 crowd remains derivative, and imitative; and while there are a great many dancers who can slide, hop up and make 14 sounds, and break the floor with powerful maneuvers, there are a relative few dancers with any stylistic range, and even fewer who understand the fundamentals of swing in music or technique. Day one, lesson one, I lead the dancers for 30 minutes of real soft-shoe, to orient our work immediately away from the overwhelming modern phenomenon of thoughtless floor-whacking.
In our tag-team workshop the dancers learn Paul Draper’s rigorous ‘Tea for Two’, a technically demanding soft-shoe with a one-tap-at-a-time aesthetic that no longer exists; some killer up-tempo swing material featuring ‘relaxed’ and ‘articulated’ technique as brilliantly explained by Michelle; and an excerpt of her choreography to Radiohead’s Everything In Its Right Place, a freaky tune in 10. I find her explanations of technique illuminating, and she learns most of Tea for Two as a chair dance. On the last day of the workshop, as Tea for Two, uptempo swing, and Radiohead 10/4 funk run through the feet and minds of the dancers, I think: that is as diverse a tap experience as you could ever ask for.
When the broken-footed Dorrance unleashes her swing material at tempo, the dizzying speed has us all shaking our heads. Is that where the nausea began? More than a few people consider break their own feet if the results could only be like that. It takes me back to my early days, when the young and still charming Savion Glover, aged 15 and broken-footed, was performing in my Cambridge series with his mother chiming in every so often, ‘Light tapping, sweetie. Light tapping.”
The All Tap Dancers Band will never win any prizes, but it sure is fun. We are joined for the 2015 Viral edition by an exceptional pianist, a Finn living in Berlin, Jarkko Riihimäki, who qualifies for the gig by performing a shuffle step that he learns about 20 minutes before showtime. So, we all tap dance, we all play music, and this edition features a lot of my own choreography: waltz to Tenderly, Cappella Josh, the quirky Limbo Jazz, and Walking My Baby Back Home.
We open the second set playing Watermelon Man for a quartet of improvising tap dancers. Jonas Nermyr, co-producer of the wild Stockholm Tap Festival; Janne Eraker, recently awarded a three-year artist’s grant from the Norwegian government; Avalon Rathgeb, the notable Brit who can seem to be in every European city at once; and home-girl Tina, capably representing Blue Tap. While the quartet works the floor, the All Tap Band destroys the tune: the rhythm section misses a few bars but plows ahead as the 4 ukuleles strumming madly get lost, have a discussion, drop out, and get ourselves back together. A band of tap dancers playing behind a group of tap dancers, one highlight only rivaled by the New Orleans-style simultaneous kazoo solos that punctuate Anina’s solo.
Rose spends a lot of time in the bathroom: before she gets violently ill, and before she spends the last day in Berlin tending to the weakened Dorrance, she spends three days in the shower room in Blue Tap, i-phone pressed to ear, memorizing/droning her harmony part on Tonight You Belong… Something about the sound of a woman seemingly trapped in a tile resonance chamber, coupled with intermittent and desperate three-part harmony rehearsals, makes the song our anthem, with endless variations: ‘I puked (I puked) and I flushed it a-all down, watched it swirl around, fell onto the ground….’
Michelle and I, in the Berlin apartment after the final viral day, can’t stop laughing. We sit in our reduced state eating crackers, sipping coke, and catching up on everything. It’s our longest uninterrupted conversation; neither of us has any place to go, any energy to do anything, any need but recovery. I tell her that at times in the stomach virus teaching session I found myself rubbing my body and head in odd unconscious ways; she confesses that during her last class she ended slumped in a frog-like lean against the mirror, encouraging people to answer their own damned questions.
Maladies notwithstanding, our first-time collaboration was a success, and a whole lot of fun: the students graciously accept the ’emergency’ situation of the last day’s teaching, and miraculously Michelle and I cover all the scheduled hours. We are already planning the next project, and hoping to make a dance together. Meanwhile we have a story of survival and triumph on the road that will never be forgotten. My next fix of Michelle Dorrance cannot come soon enough.