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What is Dance’s Relationship with Live Music?
What is Dance?

What is Dance’s Relationship with Live Music?

Live music adds an extra layer of liveness to a performance, one that encourages performers to tune in to one another and that invites audiences to experience heightened sensual awareness.

By Janet Schroeder
Gregory Richardson and Nicholas Van Young in "ETM: Double Down," 2016. Photo: Christopher Duggan


Live dancing paired with live music creates rich, multi-sensory experiences for audiences and performers alike. This combination enables a give-and-take between dancers and musicians as they work together to co-create the performance pieces on stage. They tune into one another so that dancers hear and musicians see, which produces something that the audience can feel. Live music and dance are fixtures at the Pillow. This essay aims to explore dance through the lens of live music, which actually illuminates the thematic content of the performance works.

When the pairing of live music and dance is done well, dancers and musicians sync up so precisely it seems it would be impossible for one to perform without the other. For an audience, live music fills the ears as the live dancing fills the eyes. For dancers, performing with live music changes their sensitivity and attention to it. That said, it is not always the case that musicians and dancers are discrete groups of people on stage. Borrowed Light (2006, 2012), ETM: The Initial Approach (2014) and ETM: Double Down (2016), and Moses(es) (2014) testify to this fact. In these pieces, the line between musicians and dancers is blurry, as everyone on stage moves and makes music together.

Borrowed Light: Staging Community

Borrowed Light, a collaboration between the Tero Saarinen Company of Finland and the Boston Camerata, offers a compelling juxtaposition of off-centered movement with music that is even and measured. The Shaker tunes and the performance of them by the Boston Camerata are bouncy, articulate, and sung mostly in unison with occasional simple harmonies, while the movement of the dancers spirals around itself, swinging and falling. Dancers lurch forward only to spill backward. They throw their energy up, out, and all around them. These movements are amplified by the whirl of their costumes, and in some moments, the dancers unleash their own momentum as their fellow dancers control them by pulling on their thick leather belts.

Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light, 2012
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One theme Saarinen refers to whenever he discusses Borrowed Light is community. The piece uses Shaker spirituals as its music and follows an architectural principle employed in Shaker residences to maximize daylight as the premise of its lighting design. Importantly to Saarinen, the piece does not represent Shakers explicitly, but rather, the piece explores the feeling and spirit of community embedded in the Shaker experience.

From its inception, Borrowed Light was also about another community—the one the performers would create by uniting the Boston Camerata with the Tero Saarinen Company. In response to a question about the ways the dancers and singers support one another in performance, Saarinen discusses his objective to “weave together these two communities” in this piece.

Post-show talk with Joel Cohen, Anne Azema, and Tero Saarinen, moderated by Maura Keefe, 2012
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The voices of the singers paired with the body percussion and heavy stepping and stomping of the dancers; the three-dimensional circling and spiraling of the dancers paired with the constant presence and gaze of the singers—this piece would not be so powerful if one were seen or heard without the other. While there are distinct differences between the singers and dancers, the choreography often integrates the two groups. The singers traverse the stage throughout the piece, sometimes joining the dancers as they side-step their way around a large circle or as they slowly travel in a line, moving from upstage toward the audience.

The following excerpt brings the two groups together. As the singers’ voices repeat a verse again and again, the dancers dance themselves almost to exhaustion. Over time, the singers create a small clump at the center of the stage, a vortex around which the dancers circle and leap, stomp and slap. Together, the movement and sound build to a frenzied, delirious, almost crazed energy.

Tero Saarinen Company in Borrowed Light, 2012
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Borrowed Light feels complete for its integration of movement with voices, costumes, and lighting. As a theatrical enterprise, Borrowed Light invests time and energy into collaboration, into design, into integrating each of the elements that makes up a living piece of art. The singers and dancers of Borrowed Light create a cohesive community and an exquisite performance piece. The integration of a cappella voices, body rhythms, and full-bodied, space-eating movements, epitomizes the rich sensory experience created throughout the piece.

MOSES(ES): A Single Idea Unfolding Infinitely

Choreographer Reggie Wilson is no stranger to Jacob’s Pillow. His company, Reggie Wilson / Fist and Heel Performance Group first appeared in the Inside/Out series with Love in 1996 followed by a repertory program in 1998, and then in the Doris Duke Theatre with The Tale in 2007, Moses(es) in 2014, and POWER in 2019. As an artist, Wilson says he likes the idea of “taking something unmanageable and trying to make it manageable,” which is the challenge he presented himself with in his piece Moses(es). While the title of the piece refers to the biblical figure of Moses, and while the piece is in some ways about that figure, Moses is really just the beginning. When asked about how his relationship to Moses(es) changed in the process of making the piece, Wilson reveals the complex simplicity that this piece is all about.

Post-Show Talk with Reggie Wilson, 2014
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Approaching Moses(es) from the perspective of the relationship between dancing and live music illuminates this central premise of the piece—a single idea, unfolding infinitely. On the integration of music and sound in the piece, Wilson purposefully created an interactive sound score, which enables his investigation of layers of ideas, piling high, shifting, unfolding, aligning, dissembling, multiplying.

The piece uses recorded music from Louis Armstrong, The Klezmatics, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, to name only a few. In performance, Wilson along with vocalists Lawrence Harding and Rhetta Aleong add live singing, chanting, and percussion to the sound score. The dancers also occasionally lend their voices to the performance, as when they chant a fractal equation alongside the vocalists’ live and recorded voices.

The concept of fractals is one point of entry for Wilson in exploring the infinite unfolding of an idea. Fractals are complex patterns that repeat themselves in ever-smaller scales. In Moses(es), however, the notion of fractals produces an ever-expansive range of ideas, images, and movements. In a section of Moses(es) that specifically engages a fractal equation, Wilson uses fractals as a metaphor for the infinite potential of all of this layering. Though this section does not use music, it does layer a variety of sound qualities from multiple voices, which is a distinctive characteristic of this piece. The sound score for this section includes recordings of the vocalists speaking a fractal equation alongside their live voices, which also recite the equation. At the start of the section, even the dancers speak as they move. In the beginning it seems easy to identify the correlations between movements and words as dancers chant and move simultaneously and in unison. However, over time, as the movements expand, those markers disappear. It becomes impossible to identify patterns or relationships between movements among the dancers and between movements and words, as seen in this brief excerpt from the piece.

Reggie Wilson / Fist and Heel Performance Group in Moses(es), 2014
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In moments of transition, live voices bump up against recordings. Lighting shifts. Singers chant and move. Dancers pace. As these moments layer visual and aural experience, they also blur distinctions between seeing, hearing, and feeling. In one of these transitions, the movement and tone of the piece shift abruptly. As vocalists chant-sing, “Eli, Eli! Somebody call Eli,” their arms gesture up, down, and out, while their feet perform a stepping pattern from a folk dance. Suddenly a recording of female throat singing by the Ngqoko Women’s Ensemble interrupts their voices and, at the same time, dancers begin running across the stage. The vocalists join in this spilling, connecting, and constantly shifting movement. In this exploration of community, no one performer ever emerges as a singular leader.

Reggie Wilson / Fist and Heel Performance Group in Moses(es), 2014
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Near the end of the piece, we see the return of a community that had been established as performers touch one another to connect, then exploding out only to reassemble again. This time it happens in slow motion as Wilson calls out, “Moses, Moses, don’t get lost,” and dancers respond, “in that red sea.”

Reggie Wilson / Fist and Heel Performance Group in Moses(es), 2014
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The integration of movement with live and recorded sound involving both dancers and singers displays the already interconnected community of Reggie Wilson/Fist & Heel Performance Group. Addressing the theme of Moses in this piece, audiences encounter the integration of leaders and followers as essential to a unified community.

ETM: Dance is Music is Dance

As in other tap dancing, in the ETM series from Dorrance Dance, dancing creates music. ETM, which stands for electronic tap music, is a play on EDM, electronic dance music. What sets ETM apart from other tap dance performance is the ways the wired dance boards upon which the performers dance also add tone and timbre and electronic dimensions of sound inaccessible by shoes alone.

Dorrance Dance in ETM: Double Down, 2016
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Artistic director (and 2013 Jacob’s Pillow Award winner) Michelle Dorrance has cultivated a distinct aesthetic that encourages tap dancers to engage the entire body while dancing. The tap dance boards offer dancers a new challenge, which makes this full-bodied dancing even more exciting. Dancers stretch to reach a board. They end spins at just the right moment. They jump up and hang in the air until the moment they have to play their next note.

The use of technology certainly makes this piece stand out from the tap dance pack, but it does not get all of the credit. The choreography, improvisation, and staging of this piece epitomize the quality of innovation that is embedded in tap dance as a form. In the ETM series, Dorrance Dance transforms upon its own original innovation. With ETM: Double Down, Dorrance expanded upon what was already a rich investigation of the potential of bodies to make sound/music in an earlier iteration of the piece dubbed ETM: The Initial Approach. A side-by-side comparison of one scene from each iteration reveals the tremendous choreographic development from the Initial Approach to Double Down. In the Initial Approach three dancers shift in and out of simple choreographed steps and individual improvisations.

Dorrance Dance in ETM: The Initial Approach, 2014
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In Double Down, those original steps and rhythms remain, but by using the full company of dancers for the scene in Double Down, Dorrance more than doubles the dimensions of movement and sound on stage. Additionally, when the tap dancers face upstage keeping a steady beat with side-to-side crawling steps, b-girl Ephrat “Bounce” Asherie’s movements stand out downstage.

ETM: Double Down

Michelle Dorrance and her collaborator Nicholas Van Young talk about the many ways they expanded their use of technology in Double Down. They also address ways this enhanced the possibilities of dancers making music in the moment of performance.

Post-Show Talk with Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young in conversation with Jacob's Pillow Scholar-in-Residence Suzanne Carbonneau, 2016

While electronic music is certainly foregrounded in the ETM series, the show does not completely abandon acoustic tap dance. The moments when the dancers put metal to wood without assistance from computer software are all the more pronounced in this show. That said, as with the rest of ETM, even in acoustic moments the sounds of tap dancing are augmented with other textures of sound. In the section aptly titled “Boards and Chains,” dancers tap atop acoustic wood platforms, which are fitted with a strip of corrugated metal along one side. Each dancer also manipulates a long metal chain, dropping it onto the board in time with the dancing.

Dorrance Dance in the “Boards and Chains" section of ETM: Double Down, 2016
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ETM reminds audiences that tap dancers are also musicians. Their bodies constantly interact with technology, with the floor, and with the body itself to create music and dance simultaneously.

In a 2017 PillowTalk entitled “Tap Today,” Dorrance and Dormeshia, co-directors of several different tap programs in the School at Jacob’s Pillow, discuss the relationship between tap dance and music.

PillowTalk with Michelle Dorrance and Dormeshia, moderated by Janet Schroeder, 2017
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By integrating musicians and dancers in these pieces and blurring the lines between who dances and who makes music, Borrowed Light, ETM, and Moses(es) persistently remind viewers of the liveliness of performance.

To see even more instances of live music and dance at the Pillow, check out the Live Music playlist on Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. These excerpts illustrate many different ways choreographers engage with live music. For example, note that in Dance Heginbotham’s Chalk and Soot and Jessica Lang Dance’s Within the Space I Hold musicians join the dancers on stage as in the pieces discussed above. However, in the choreography by Heginbotham and Lang, while musicians and dancers do not physically interact, the musicians are responsive to the action unfolding before them.


Janet Schroeder is a percussive dance artist, scholar, and teacher, with a particular interest in rhythm tap dance, Appalachian clogging, and body percussion.Read Bio

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