The Distance Danced
Between its old and new versions of 'Swingin' Then & Now,' Tapestry Dance Company has swung a long way, baby
The last time Tapestry Dance Company presented the program Swingin' Then & Now, the multiform dance troupe had just turned pro, and Acia Gray was still in her first season of flying solo as artistic director, her co-founder and partner Deirdre Strand having surrendered her co-artistic directorship for a position at St. Stephen's School. In fact, the spring 1997 production was Gray's very first shot at choreographing an entire show by herself. She and Tapestry have crammed a lifetime into the nine years since: 20 productions, most of them driven by Gray's original choreography; the establishment of the annual Soul to Sole tap festival, which twice featured tap legend Fayard Nicholas before his passing this year; Gray's induction into the Austin Arts Hall of Fame; her terrible brush with life-threatening illness; a need to pull up stakes at Tapestry's home of a decade in central Austin and move to a new studio south; and a complete turnover in the membership of the company.
It's that new company of dancers that will be moving to the old steps in Tapestry's revival of Swingin' Then & Now, at the Paramount this weekend. After putting them through their paces in a strenuous midday workout last week, Gray sat down to talk about the changes the company has gone through.Austin Chronicle: Do you recall the pressure of having to choreograph the whole thing yourself? Acia Gray: I don't remember it being a negative thing if it was there. It must not have been, considering I did choreograph two hours of material, which I haven't done since then. I think where I was coming from was not having been able to do that yet, so I was, "Cool! I get to do whatever!" The thing of this show, this and .com and Rhythm of a Life, these are my most theatrical shows. They go to what my degree is in. I find myself giving acting notes and not necessarily movement notes. There's something about it ... a spirit of playfulness that's definitely a part of me. Because comedy is definitely a part of me. And when you give me that venue and you give me people that love to do that, too, it's a blast. I love it. I absolutely love it.
This was a show that we toured a lot right after we did it, so a lot of it was still in my body when we first started working on it again so much in my body that when I have to figure out what I'm doing exactly, I'm not always right. You know, it's really sad when you can't remember your own choreography. I'm fascinated by some of the things I did, and I don't know how I did them. And what I've learned this season [in recreating JASS] and recreating Swingin', is it's hard to ask a multiform company that's not a New York City Ballet, with the same legs and the same height and the same everything, to be the same cast that did it before. It's impossible. You can't do it. You just have to find what makes these dancers look good and what's comfortable for their bodies.
AC: Did you create specific things for the specific people you had at the time?AG: Yeah. Everybody had been around at least [four years]. That may have been SethJohn [Davis'] first season, but Nick [Young], Mel [Melissa Glouchkova], Shonna [Stewart], Vlad [Vladislav Glouchkov], Karen Honcik, they go back to '93, at least. Karen and Nicholas moved like me and Deirdre; that's what their training was, so when we danced together they could emulate exactly what I wanted; it just came out naturally. Shonna and Nick as partners, Mel and Vlad as partners, I could sculpt them as they did it. That's what's hard about this time. Because these guys don't know where [these steps] came from. I think the trap for me and it's a disadvantage for these dancers is the part of me that's trying to re-create that show. It's not fair. It's so much to ask of a dancer to do that.
AC: Does it feel like nine years since you did it?
AC: What was behind your decision to bring this particular show back?AG: I felt a real calling to do something traditional that wasn't necessarily tap, and I thought this cast would be perfect. The personalities of these people fit this show really well. It felt like time, not only as a show but as a completion, like coming back to where we started. I also think a big part of me wanted a creative break because I've been creating new work twice a year. That's a lot of new work. So it was about, not only revisiting something, but what does it feel like to have fun with something we've already done that was a success?
AC: And it's new for these artists.AG: And for most likely 80, 90% of our audience.
AC: But because you're a multiform company, when you replace a dancer, you're not necessarily swapping out a performer with a similar skill set. You may be replacing a ballet dancer with a rhythm tap dancer, which can really change the whole character of the company. Since all the dancers have changed since you first produced Swingin', can you characterize the company now as opposed to then?AG: Because I have a company now of more tap dancers, I'm more of a professional peer to this group of dancers. I'm not saying that I wasn't really close to the other dancers, but I wasn't a ballerina; they were coming from a completely different place. [Current company members] Brenna [Kuhn] and Matt [Shields] and Tasha [Lawson] all came to me as tap dance artists that knew me as a master teacher internationally. They came to me to study and work with me, but I also speak their language. I'm not saying they look up to me one would hope they do but I can almost correct this group in deeper ways more subtly.
The first time around, Tapestry felt transient, like you were here and then you were going off to do something else, or you were here because you used to do something else. Now, you're doing something. This is a professional company, you're getting paid a good amount of money, and it's the only company that does what it does. And it may have been true back then, but we didn't pay enough. Back then, it felt homegrown. Now, it doesn't. It feels legitimized, because all of these dancers, except for Andrea Comola, who's from Midland, are from out of state or out of the country. Matt and Tasha are from Canada. That's really different. It feels good to know that they relocated to be here. That legitimizes what I'm doing, what we do as an organization.
It was Cookie Ruiz [managing director] with Ballet Austin who told me that every organization goes through growth just like a human does, and you can follow it literally. If you are a 13-year-old organization, you are really a 13-year-old, and most of the problems you have are exactly what a 13-year-old would have. We're now almost 18 years old, [when you're usually] about to graduate high school, and it feels like that's what's about to happen to Tapestry. I feel like Tapestry is truly a foundation, not only of Austin, but of the dance community in general.
And another thing: It may be I was on my deathbed two years ago and I'm getting older, but it used to be that I worried about losing people. I'm not worried about losing people anymore. I just want to do what I do, and if they want to be here, and they show me that they're what I want, I rehire them. [One dancer] told me not too long ago, "I'm in it for the long haul." This is her career, and I don't think we had that feeling in '97.
In '97, we were just starting to be a professional company. We didn't know what that meant yet. I'd been in one, I knew what that meant, but I didn't know what it meant for Tapestry, what was going to happen, what this company was gonna do. This year, we'll do the Soul to Sole festival, then go to Canada for a week after that I mean, the company is known.
AC: Sole to Soul enhanced Tapestry's place on the national scene. It's coming up on its sixth year this May. How do you feel it has served Tapestry?AG: It's felt wonderful to me because I feel like I have brought my family, the people I've been around, my mentors, here to share with Austin. Again, it legitimizes Tapestry because it's successful; it's one of the top five festivals in the country as far as its size. To be able to say that we brought in Fayard Nicholas twice, for my dancers and this community to feel that those legends are real people because the festival is that intimate, is such a special thing to me. And the same way that Tapestry is known for [the way] we have fun dancing with each other, this is the festival where everybody is making rhythm together, no matter what their levels. In fact, it's very different [from] other tap festivals. And I think it's Austin, it's me, it's the people I hire, but it feels so wonderful to be able to do that. And artists want to be invited to come, which is neat, because it's a fun festival, and we take care of you. And the conservatory is one of a kind in the country. We bring the faculty together in one big room, and no agenda is set, and it's a safe place to discuss the issues and the movement of the field, be it steps, schedules, racism, sexism, ... everything. To be able to have a safe place to have all of that happen and have debates with people that are working and agree to disagree is absolutely incredible. That has changed not only what the festival represents in the nation and with the students that come, but how Tapestry is looked at overall, that it's that safe place.
We say that in our academy: This is a safe place to dance. That's why we don't have competitions. That's why we don't let diva ballerinas get away with it for very long. That's why we don't have parents spend $300 on sparkly costumes for the end-of-year concert. Because it should be a safe place to dance. Dance is communication. Some people don't look at dance as communication. How can you not? It's a language. It's not about the steps. That's one of my biggest sayings: It's not about the steps. You can learn English, but if you don't have anything to say, what's the point?
Saying stuff like that all the time and feeling it in my gut and seeing how it's working all these years since the last Swingin' Then & Now, is also very different. I know who I am more the second time around on this show. I have never felt as healthy as I do now. I haven't felt this strong since, well, about the time I did Swingin' Then & Now, probably. I couldn't have done this show last year. Obviously, I couldn't have done it the year I was sick. I couldn't have done it the year before that or the year before that. Did I have to get that sick to get healthy again? Who knows why? I feel great. I don't feel old, up there on stage with all these 20-year-olds.
You know, when you look at the 20-year-olds, whether it's acting or dancing or comedy, it's the sport of it. And then when you get to a certain age, it's the art of it. The older we get, the more we stop directing ourselves in some ways. Relaxing in our own skin makes us better at what we do.
When I stop working, when I stop trying to get better at what I'm doing, I think I'll stop. When I'm not hungry for more, that'll be the time I do something else; I'll go be a paramedic or something. The work is too hard. This business is too hard if you're not gaining back, if you're not getting something new for yourself as a person.
Swingin' Then & Now will be performed Friday and Saturday, April 21 and 22, 8pm, at the Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress. For more information, call 866/443-8849 or visit www.tapestry.org.