'Do what moves you': When the student takes over as composer

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'Do what moves you': When the student takes over as composer
Aaron Marcellus, above, with Michelle Dorrance, collaborators on the new dance work “45th and 8th,” at the Joyce Theater on Dec. 2, 2022. After years of friendship and collaboration, Marcellus is writing the music for a new dance by Dorrance, his former tap teacher. (Justin Kaneps/The New York Times)

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- When tap dancer Michelle Dorrance met Aaron Marcellus more than a dozen years ago, he was a regular student in her tap classes. He always hung at the back, working hard to keep up, but during improvisational exercises, Dorrance could tell there was more to him than might initially meet the eye.

“You’re a musician, aren’t you?” she recently recalled having asked him after one of those early encounters. He told her, in a downplaying fashion that she would learn was characteristic, that yeah, he was a vocalist. So she looked him up on YouTube.

“I was floored,” she said. “What was this world-class vocalist doing at the back of my tap class?”

Soon after that, Dorrance formed a company, Dorrance Dance, and as that group went from success to success, Marcellus was frequently with them, singing and occasionally dancing. Over the years, he would often contribute melodies and musical ideas.

But it is only now — for the company’s two-week season at the Joyce Theater, which opens Wednesday — that he is taking the lead as principal composer. The new work, choreographed by Dorrance, is called “45th & 8th,” after the nearest cross streets to the site of their first meeting.

Dorrance’s sole directive to Marcellus, she said, was “Do what moves you.” This was an act of faith, based on established trust.

In a joint interview after a rehearsal Saturday, Dorrance and Marcellus turned singing each other’s praises into the equivalent of a tap challenge, trading stories about the other’s artistry and personality.

“Aaron is so humble, so generous, so funny,” Dorrance said. “You dream something up and then he not only understands you before you’re done explaining, but he takes the idea to another place musically and a deep place emotionally.”

Marcellus later countered: “Michelle is a pristine professional, but she leads with her heart. I’ve learned so much from her about musicality, and ideas that start as jokes but become genius.”

Some of this mutual admiration talk came as explanation for their collaboration. For Dorrance, Marcellus is “the world’s best-kept secret, and I’m just waiting for him to be swept away from us. He’ll go on an international tour with his own band, and we’ll remember the days when we got to work together.” At which point Marcellus promised that he would never say no to her call.

From the start of their friendship, Dorrance said, she felt incredibly lucky when Marcellus accepted invitations to join her for performances. This high regard contrasted, however, with how Marcellus felt about himself at the time.

“I was at rock bottom,” he said, “and somebody was asking me to sing?”

Marcellus, 38, was born and raised in Atlanta. His mother was a teacher; his father, a police investigator. He was immersed in music — in church and at home.

“At Christmas I didn’t want toys,” he said. “There were always instruments around the tree.” When he was 9, a children’s gospel group he was in was signed to a local record label, and he grew up performing with a series of similar ensembles. As a young adult, he switched genres — to soul and R&B — and auditioned for “American Idol.”

He tried out for the show three times, and in the 11th season made it into the Top 24. On tour with other “American Idol” contestants, he became the musical director, fixing arrangements and playing for everyone when he wasn’t singing himself.

But then it was over, and he was in New York with no more than a suitcase. He crashed with friends and acquaintances and sometimes slept in parks.

“I had lost,” he said. “I was a nobody, and it was rough going from 30 million people watching you every night to strapping on an orange vest and working the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North all night.” He taught voice lessons during the day and squeezed in performance gigs where he could.

Money was tight, but he found enough to pay for Dorrance’s tap classes, which led to jobs with her. She helped him get steadier work, too. Before forming her company, Dorrance was in the off-Broadway show “Stomp.” (Another of her three premieres this season reunites her with female “Stomp” veterans.) She prepped Marcellus for the “Stomp” audition, and on his second try, in 2015, he got the job.

Before long, though, Marcellus had to choose between continuing with “Stomp” and touring with Dorrance Dance. The company had traveled in 2016 to the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts for the debut of a work called “ETM: Double Down.” Marcellus recalled standing in the wings, listening to the music made by the dancers.

“I started weeping, the ugly cry,” he said. “I just knew: I want to be here.” He told Dorrance his decision as soon as she got offstage.

In the interview, Dorrance immediately answered this story with one of her own, about her and the other dancers standing in the wings in tears, listening to Marcellus. During the development of “ETM,” he started using an electronic controller to loop and layer his voice.

“He turned it into a new instrument,” she said.

Fast-forward to a few months ago, when Dorrance, knowing that a show in Atlanta was on the calendar, asked Marcellus to compose something.

“I just wanted to ride whatever wave he sent in,” she said. This ended up involving some new musicians from his Marcellus Collective: saxophonist Matt Parker and church-steeped drummer Kyle Everett. The score included what Dorrance called “the ’90s funk groove of my dreams” and sounds that brought back earlier parts of her life. But it did not include much of Marcellus singing.

He explained that when he was on “American Idol,” someone told him that he was only a vocalist, not good enough to play piano, too.

“And for a long time, I stopped playing, though I had been doing it since I was a kid,” he said. “But now I need to say to myself that I’m more than just a singer.”

On Saturday, the piece was still shifting.

“Michelle and I work the same way,” Marcellus said. “We might have an idea six years ahead of time, but it doesn’t get done until the moment we have to walk onstage.”

Dorrance shared a recent voice note from when the title for their current collaboration was due and they didn’t have one yet. In the recording, Marcellus laughs as he says, “Why are we like this?”

A little bit before that, in rehearsal, Dorrance had listened in awe as Marcellus improvised some of his vocal loops, layering harmony atop harmony before trampolining into musical acrobatics. But her deeper response came in what she had choreographed to what he had composed, in the tiny corrections she was giving the dancers to match it more closely.

She was riding the wave of what she had intuited from the start: that Aaron Marcellus is a musician.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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