For one performance only on May 3, 2019, Dorrance Dance will make its debut at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa with the west coast premiere of ETM: Double Down, choreographed by Artistic Director Michelle Dorrance, Nicholas Van Young, with Ephrat Asherie, and solo improvisation by the dancers.
Dorrance Dance is a New York based tap company founded by Michelle Dorrance. Nicholas Van Young is an award winning dancer, musician and choreographer who created the original tap “instruments” used for ETM: Double Down, and he is the founder of Sound Movement dance company.
Young agreed to a phone interview with LA Dance Chronicle for a pre-show article. The focus of the interview soon became how the music is created in real time by the dancers. Utilizing a computer program called Ableton Live, Young has transformed the entire set into a musical instrument for the dancers to compose on while dancing to their own music.
For Young, his company Sound Movement is directed toward smaller venues and audiences. “It has been a place for me to experiment with different ideas” he said. “many of which ended up finding a home in ETM. I’ve done some collaborations with other artists and musical installations at museums and other places.” ETM: Double Down is, however, one of the four large-scale works that Young has collaborated on with Michelle Dorrance.
“I figured out a process,” Young explained. “how to make this work for us (Dorrance Dance). The instruments are basically small trigger boards like you would find on an electronic drum set, but they are made from wood.” He said that he had been experimenting with a way to alter or manipulate tap sounds for a solo performance when became interested in utilizing Ableton Live, a performance software program designed for electronic musicians.
While growing up, Young had seen tap dancers trying out different methods of changing the sound of their taps. He spoke about dancers experimenting with this manipulation of sounds as far back as the 1970s, and how the Australian group Tap Dogs had done a version of it. The equipment, however, was too large and cumbersome. With all the advancements in technology and having a Mac computer to run everything through, unique doors of unlimited possibilities have been opened for him and other artists.
Not being content with just tap dancing on an amplified wooden floor, Young set out to create a way to record the music that he was creating with his feet. “I wanted to produce the music with my taps, record it, loop it, and then improvise to the music that I had just created.” He said. “Then I decided to make all these little boards that I could trigger different samples, different loop points and trigger effects.” By doing so, Young created a playable instrument that he could control without using his hands.
“That is what I ended up falling in love with.” Young said. “Not changing the tap dance itself but being able to create songs to dance to.”
Michelle Dorrance saw a performance with Young utilizing this “playable instrument” and expressed an interest in collaborating on a new work. During their residence at Jacobs Pillow to work on creating a new dance, the company experimented with Young’s ideas. These became the seeds to their final piece titled ETM: Double Down.
When asked what the initials ETM stand for, Young said that while he and Dorrance were trying to decide on a title, he realized that EDM stood for Electronic Dance Music, so he jokingly suggested ETM, Electronic Tap Music. “The title stuck.” Young said. “It was simple and said it all.”
The set for ETM: Double Down was created prior to the choreography. It consists of an open wood covered area, and several wooden platforms of different levels along the back. Young explained that the shape of the set was born out of necessity to accommodate the number of trigger boards that they wanted to use. It was Michelle Dorrance who originally wanted different levels, with an open space to be able to travel, but also incorporate stations for the dancers to play the music that they are dancing to in real time. The final design was a result of trial and error, reshaping the platforms so that dancers could move freely forward and back, as well as dance across to the different stations. Running underneath and behind these platforms are hundreds of feet of cable that supply the necessary amplification to support Young’s large “musical instrument” — the set.
For touring, the company used to carry all the cables around in large suitcases and spend long hours before performing just setting up. “We then hired the incredibly efficient Production Manager and Sound Technician, Christopher Mark, who organized it all more efficiently.” Now when the performers enter a new venue, everything is ready for them to rehearse and perform on.
Young said that he primarily dances in this production but that he does perform a short drum duet with dancer/musician Warren Craft and “a little Brazilian caxixi (pronounced ca shi shi).”
ETM: Double Down has a cast of 8 dancers and 3 musicians. I asked Young if it was one work or a series of shorter works under one title. “It is one work. It is all connected. Not necessarily through a narrative, although some people have found narratives within it. We are definitely playing with the obvious,” He said. “which is playing and interfacing with technology, and how that affects us.” He went on to explain that different emotional narratives do begin to be created in terms of how and when they are using their vocalists. He explained that at first they are purely interfacing with the technology but that once that is stripped away and we hear a human voice for the first time, that the show takes a dramatic shift.
One of the final statements that Young made about ETM: Double Down was that during the time it was being created, tap artist Brenda Bufalino saw the work and gave them feedback. There were two of her statements that made impressions on him. Bufalino asked if the composition worked when everything all the technology fails. Young thinks that it does. Even if something fails, the percussive rhythms created by the tap dancers are extremely strong and enjoyable. Bufalino also said that half way through the piece, the audience relaxes, forgets about the technology and simply enjoys the show.
Dorrance Dance performs for one night only in Segerstrom Hall on Friday, May 3, 2019 at 7:30 PM. Single tickets start at $39. The box office is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa or can be reached by calling (714) 556-2787. For inquiries about group ticket savings for 10 or more, call the Group Services office at (714) 755-0236.
For more information about Segerstrom Center for the Arts, click here.
For more information about Dorrance Dance, click here.
Featured image: Segerstrom Center for the Arts – Dorrance Dance – Photo by Christopher Duggan