Tapestry Dance Company:Getting those tap shoes re-'Soul'ed
The troupe's thrilling Souls of Our Feet program is back, with more reconstructions of classic rhythm tap routines
In 2006, Tapestry Dance Company Artistic Director Acia Gray set her company the daunting challenge of re-creating live onstage a number of classic rhythm tap routines immortalized on film. We're talking routines by top-of-the-line masters: Eleanor Powell, Fred Astaire, the Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, et al. – the kinds of singular artists that you can't imagine anyone dancing like. But Gray's dancers rose to the challenge, finding a way to match the seemingly matchless moves of these legends and creating one of the most exhilarating evenings of dance in recent memory. After wowing Austinites with it, Tapestry has been taking the program, which received substantial support from the National Endowment for the Arts' American Masterpieces initiative, on the road, but now the show is back, in an all-new edition that includes more than an hour's worth of newly reconstructed dances that didn't appear in the original.
Given the wealth of classic routines to draw from, it's easy to picture Gray agonizing over what to add to the program. But harder yet, she says, was choosing what to cut from the original – that's how well the show worked. But she cleared the way for a tribute to women in tap, including Dr. Jeni LeGon – "one of the first African-American women to get a full-time Hollywood movie contract," Gray notes – Ginger Rogers, Ann Miller, and a solo for the great Eleanor Powell.
In the course of developing the new program, Gray was able to bring in some tap legends for weeklong residencies with the company. Tapestry dancers were able to spend hours in conversation with LeGon, Harold "Stumpy" Cromer, and Arthur Duncan – priceless time that Gray characterizes as "amazing ... just amazing."
Duncan, best known for his 18 years on The Lawrence Welk Show, for which he was the first African-American hired as a regular in a weekly network television series, has become a close friend to Gray and Tapestry co-founder Deirdre Strand. The two met in person at the funeral of tap master Fayard Nicholas in January 2006, although Gray had invited Duncan to come to Tapestry's annual Soul to Sole Festival in May. When they got to visit at a dinner afterward, Gray says, they "hit it off immediately, and three hours later, we were all part of the same family!" She has since worked alongside him at Soul to Sole, the Los Angeles Tap Festival, and San Antonio's Third Coast Rhythm Project, spending many an evening talking shop over "a glass of vodka and cranberry juice" (although Duncan prefers orange juice, she notes). "It's amazing how much is to be learned about the craft and artistry of rhythm tap dance and jazz off the floor," says Gray. "The same held true with Charles 'Honi' Coles, Fayard, and many others. It is truly a gift to be able to spend time with such a true master and friend as Arthur – just one of a handful of legends still around to share this incredible American art form."
The Souls of Our Feet 2008 runs March 7-9, Friday-Saturday, 8pm; Saturday-Sunday, 2pm, at the Temple Theatre of the Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's Episcopal School, 2900 Bunny Run. For more information, call 773-7827 or visit www.tapestry.org.