Michelle Dorrance’s Four Musketeers of Tap
Posted December 19, 2017 5:59 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — With her sharp eye for talent, dancer and choreographer Michelle Dorrance has cooked up a tap dream team.
Joining her in the premiere of the collaborative “Until the Real Thing Comes Along (a letter to ourselves)” are Jillian Meyers, Melinda Sullivan and Josette Wiggan-Freund — three singular and rhythmically brilliant dancers who are part of the traditional tap scene, but who also live in the commercial world. “Until the Real Thing” will showcase their different styles and varied experience.
Collectively, they have covered some major dance ground. Touring with a major pop artist? That would be Meyers, who danced for Janet Jackson. Film work? Meyers was an assistant choreographer on “La La Land”; and Sullivan, a onetime finalist on “So You Think You Can Dance,” performed in it. And what about the circus? Wiggan-Freund has done that, dancing alongside Joseph, her equally talented sibling, in Cirque du Soleil’s “Banana Shpeel.”
Meyers and Sullivan live in Los Angeles; Wiggan-Freund resides in Tel Aviv, Israel, with her husband and young daughter. Dorrance, the 38-year-old MacArthur fellow, brought them to New York, where for the last two weeks they have been immersed in the creation of their new work. Set to music by Fats Waller, “Until the Real Thing” is part of Dorrance Dance’s season at the Joyce Theater, through Dec. 31.
Style Guide: How Do They Move?
Wiggan-Freund, 34, says she doesn’t know if she has a specific style — she pulls from many, including ballet, which is apparent in her effortless, elegant line. She started dancing at 12 with tap, continued with ballet and jazz, and then discovered West African dance in college at UCLA. Later, she immersed herself in the Lindy Hop, a jazz-dance form born in Harlem in the 1920s, which, along with tap, is her current focus.
“I’ve just been trying to find ways to incorporate solo jazz movement into my dancing while I’m tap dancing so that it seems more seamless,” she said.
In “Until the Real Thing,” which involves transformations into different characters — there will be, for instance, a sad clown — the collaborators are aiming for a similar merging of forms. “Everything didn’t used to be separated,” Dorrance said. “It was all social dance.”
Wiggan-Freund added, “You sang, you ‘Lindied,’ you did a time step, and you played an instrument.”
But when the popularity of certain styles started to dissipate, specialists took them over. “Musicians only focused on the music,” she said. “Tap dancers focused on tap. It’s become very compartmentalized.”
Sullivan, 30, said her approach was rooted in theater. “I started learning about tap history and dancing as a musician,” she said, “but I’ve always been influenced by musical-theater and movie musicals. I’m drawn to incorporating that sort of theatricality with my tap training.”
And she’s eclectic, counting Jason Samuels Smith, from the Broadway show “Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk,” among her mentors. Dorrance remembers the first time she saw Sullivan dance. “She was a gangster — just a hoofer, period,” she said. “Like I wouldn’t have even known that she had a theatrical leaning.”
As for Meyers, 32, who has worked in both the commercial and concert realms, she said that as a fan of all dance, she feels like “a big grab bag.” In addition to touring with Jackson, she is a member of Peter Chu’s contemporary-dance company and she has recently started working with the clown and comedian Bill Irwin.
“I just want to be able to do it all, so I try,” she said with a laugh.
Dorrance is tickled that people might be surprised to see Meyers tap dancing. “The huge gigantic commercial dance world is not going to expect it, and the tap dance community is going to be like wait — she tap dances?” Dorrance said. “That’s also cool.” (Hannah Heller will fill in for Meyers, Dec. 28-31.) Studio Bliss
Of her guest artists, Dorrance said: “They could all do so many other things, but in my mind they live as honest and individual practitioners and voices of a particular vernacular era” of classic tap. “And that that’s alive inside of their contemporary-artist selves is unique for me.”
Dorrance has lots of ideas about “Until the Real Thing” but she also just wanted to play with these dancers — her equals — in the studio. “The fact that we have a show is really a shame,” she said.
Meaning that for this group, the rehearsal process has been fulfilling enough. Sullivan summed up the studio experience in a word: heaven.
“We don’t get these opportunities that often,” Wiggan-Freund said. “A lot of the time you’re hired, you learn the choreography and you go onstage, but this is a moment for us all to share, learn, grow and to be there for each other. It’s inspiring.”
And there’s something even more rare, in both the tap and commercial worlds: The collaborators are all women. “It’s allows for a very specific perspective that’s unfiltered by someone else’s idea,” Meyers said. “Usually, even if the choreographers’s a female, the director’s a male.”
Sullivan said, “So that’s final say.”
This time they get final say as a group. “The gift of this for me is that I trust them in every direction,” Dorrance said. “I trust them musically. I trust improvisational moments. And I trust each one of us to save something” — meaning fix a mistake in real time — “should a part be held together with dental floss.”