What's Past Is Prologue

Re-creating classic tap routines from the screen and stage opens an exciting new future for Tapestry Dance Company

Doin' the Hi de Ho: Matt Shields, Brenna Kuhn, and Jason Janas
Doin' the "Hi de Ho": Matt Shields, Brenna Kuhn, and Jason Janas

The moves are familiar. You've seen those feet rocket around the room, tattooing rapid-fire rhythms almost faster than the ear can follow. The thing is, before, they've always been flat, made by shadows dancing across a big screen or a little one, antique shadows a half-century old or more. But now they've exploded into three dimensions, and they're in the flesh, being danced right now, right here, without benefit of retakes or editing cuts or camera tricks. What's more, the dancers accomplishing this astonishing feat of the feet – all members of Austin's Tapestry Dance Company – match the masters step for step.

Tapestry set itself quite the challenge when it took on the task of re-creating more than a dozen historic rhythm tap routines from Hollywood's golden age and the heyday of vaudeville for its 2006-2007 season. Artistic Director Acia Gray and her company members wouldn't be just trying to dance like Fred Astaire and the Nicholas Brothers and Eleanor Powell and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. They were going to be these legendary hoofers, for all intents and purposes, dancing their precise moves in some of the best-known routines of their brilliant careers. The results, as seen in the company's premiere of The Souls of Our Feet last November, were stunning. The dancers of Tapestry – who have always been proficient at rhythm tap – seemed to be operating on a whole new level, nailing these complicated routines not only with the dexterity of the artists who originated them but with much of their confidence and style – that élan and ease in their art so evident in the past masters to whom they're paying tribute and whose images were often projected on the screens behind them as they danced. They weren't working anymore, in the way younger dancers sometimes do, where their faces betray the intense concentration going on behind them. They were simply and exquisitely dancing, with every part of their bodies in the rhythm, flowing freely and with joy no matter how intricate or technically challenging the steps might be.

And intricate and technically challenging they most certainly were. If this were a ballet company, Gray suggests, it would be like the male dancers re-creating the dance work of Baryshnikov. "That's the level of the technique in tap that we're talking about," she says.

Trust Acia Gray to know. The co-founder of Tapestry with Deirdre Strand and its guiding light has been dancing professionally for more than 25 years, and her career has allowed her to work alongside and learn the craft literally at the feet of such masters as Charles "Honi" Coles and Jimmy Slyde and Fayard Nicholas, the senior sibling in the extraordinary Nicholas Brothers team. In truth, The Souls of Our Feet has its genesis in Gray's relationship to those history-making dancers. "I honestly feel that when I choreograph, I'm channeling the energy and the souls of the people who have taught me and moved on," Gray says. "The storyboard of the show was how I helped keep these souls alive. That's how it started. I was picturing: Where am I relative to Honi [Coles] and Eddie [Brown] and Steve [Condos] and all of these old guys that I actually was able to work with? So the first act was connected to people I had actually worked with – touched, hugged, felt. I could feel their energy. And what I remember, what I discovered in watching them after knowing them. Selfishly, I wanted to re-experience what I went through working with these guys directly and watch these guys learn that stuff."

Moses Supposes then (Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly) and now (Tasha Lawson and Jason Janas)
"Moses Supposes" then (Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly) and now (Tasha Lawson and Jason Janas)

The Souls of Our Feet – which returns this week for four glorious performances in the McCullough Theatre on the UT campus – has, Gray says, "been in my head for a long time." But keeping in mind that contemporary audiences likely wouldn't have a clue who "Honi" Coles or the Condos Brothers or Buck & Bubbles were, the choreographer thought to balance their dances with more familiar pieces from silver-screen history, such as the "Moses Supposes" number that Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor share in Singin' in the Rain or a duet that Shirley Temple does with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in The Littlest Rebel. "I wanted things the audience didn't have to think about, like Singin' in the Rain," she says. "They already know that. And they know who Shirley Temple is. I wanted just enough so they say, 'Oh, cool,' and then they see these things that they've never seen before but with that same excitement."

Of course, not every dancer is well-suited to step into the shoes of a Kelly or an Astaire. For one thing, the dancer has to possess the skill-set to match the footwork of those artists in their primes. But pure technique won't make the dance look like it does in the movies (or the way it did on the vaudeville stage, if you go back that far). The dancer has to be able to move beyond the moves, in a sense, to the spirit of the dancer, to infuse the moves with that signature elegance we associate with Astaire or the vigor of Kelly or the irrepressible exuberance of the Nicholas Brothers. "I had to wait for the right company to do this show," Gray says. If she wanted to stage Eleanor Powell's duet with Astaire from Broadway Melody of 1940, "I had to wait for Eleanor Powell to show up."

She did, in the personage of Katelyn Harris, a new dancer in the Tapestry Company. How did this fresh face on the scene feel about being tapped to play the onetime queen of tap on the silver screen? Harris admits that "it was a huge weight on my shoulders," but she says she was so excited and "just wanted to do it so bad" that she didn't dwell on the idea that she was representing such an iconic figure.

The other dancers in the company admit to feeling a similar sense of responsibility toward their roles in the show, a burden bound up in their desire to honor these giants in their chosen art form. But they didn't really have much time to be intimidated by their assignments. They were too busy watching the videos, rewinding them, watching them again, rewinding them, and watching them again, trying to puzzle out beat by beat, step by step, just what these dancers were doing and how.

Keep in mind: Most of the filmed dance routines that Gray selected for the Souls of Our Feet program had never been translated from screen to stage. So the dancers had no choreographic documentation they could follow, no steps set down in a book. All they had to go by was the footage itself. And it was on a flat screen. Meaning that there was no clear way to determine the spatial relationships in the routines – how close the dancers were at certain moments, how much ground they covered in a particular move. They had to go with best-guess estimates of rough distances based on what was in the frame in any given shot. Imagine trying to develop detailed blueprints for the Parthenon based on a few postcards. It's like that.

Rehearsing <i>Souls of Our Feet</i> Tapestry guiding light Acia Gray
Rehearsing Souls of Our Feet Tapestry guiding light Acia Gray

Naturally, that made the first step in the journey of re-creating these historic dances a long and somewhat tedious one. Dissecting a dance involved lots of slo-mo, lots of rewinding, lots of trial-and-error in reconstructing moves. And most of it in very small increments: a couple of bars of music, a couple of counts even. Matt Shields estimates that breaking down the Condos Brothers number "Somethin' Like This?" – what the Tapestry dancers refer to as the "sailor dance," since it comes from the 1941 film In the Navy – took "like an hour to figure out how to do two bars."

Some of that protracted process was just the nature of the beast, the problem of pulling something out of two dimensions into three, but some of it came from the way the dance was constructed. The "sailor dance" was a case in point, as the Condos Brothers weren't playing by any choreographic rule book. "The thing about Steve [Condos]: His stuff makes no sense," says Gray. "It's just not logical to the basic elements of rhythm tap dance." So to get their feet to do what Nick and Steve Condos' feet were doing, Shields and Jason Janas, his partner in that dance, had to wrap their heads around the innovations in their approach to tap, which Shields believes "is still above some of the stuff that's happening today." Fortunately, because Gray had worked with Steve Condos, she had an idea of how the dance worked, and sometimes she could explain something about the dance that she had learned from Condos "that the film doesn't tell you."

Sometimes, however, the translation process was complicated by the illusions of Hollywood filmmaking. In working out the "Moses Supposes" number, Tasha Lawson and Janas figured out that the film version consists of three different shoots and that Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor danced without taps on their feet, with the sound of the taps dubbed in. "When we tried to pull it off the video, the auditory wasn't syncing up by a sixteenth note," says Lawson. "So pulling it off was really tricky. And we have to dance it full out, the entire piece, in one 'take,' with tap shoes on. The stamina [required] on that one is crazy."

With the show involving so many different numbers, and the dancers so intimately involved in the re-creation process, rehearsals would sometimes take place in as many as five studios simultaneously, with Gray moving from room to room to tweak and polish dances. That was a purposeful move on the part of the director. "I didn't want the show to be my interpretation of the film, to be my point of view. I wanted to see what would happen if everybody else took it," Gray says. "So they found things I never saw or never knew. Then I could add stuff that they didn't see."

Sometimes what the dancers couldn't see had nothing to do with steps and everything to do with the feel of the dance. Lawson and Brenna Kuhn were responsible for "Lucky Numbers," a routine by the Nicholas Brothers filmed when Harold was 15 and Fayard was 22. Kuhn recalls that "we spent hours in front of the video, first getting footwork; then we would start to add in the arms; then we would do the arms. But then we would be too in unison." Gray watched the two dance and told them, "You're too pretty. Stop thinkin' about it. Stop making it so polished. Let go." And then, she says, "They just kind of threw their bodies into it, and that's it. 'Cause the brothers weren't thinking about that. They were just doing it." It was one instance when the dancers' training got the better of them. "We weren't putting ourselves into it," Kuhn admits. "We had to almost throw that away and, instead of looking at the technique of what they were doing, get into the essence of what they were doing."

Tapestry guiding light Acia Gray
Tapestry guiding light Acia Gray (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

That essence of these past masters is something all the Tapestry dancers eventually absorbed into their bodies in much the same way they did the steps themselves. None of them will claim to be on the level of a Bill Robinson or a Steve Condos or an Eleanor Powell – "work in progress" is a phrase that comes up a lot when they talk about their work in this show – but at the same time, they've internalized those dancers to such a degree that now they'll improvise work based on the moves they've absorbed. "You see all the steps that come out in everybody," notes Kuhn, "and I don't know if they're even conscious that it's coming out, but they'll be doing something and, 'Oh, there's Bill! Oh, there's Steve!' So you see how much it's affected everybody. You can see how much more grounded Tasha is, how graceful and suave Matt can be, how confident Jackie [Coleman] can be, how playful she can be."

Coleman testifies to the difference in herself after doing The Souls of Our Feet. Before, the young dancer had listened to tap dancers talk about influential figures they had worked with and their signature steps. "And I'm sitting here going, 'I don't know what you mean by this and that,'" she says. "Now I have this deep understanding of each person. Now I can actually watch something and go, 'Oh, that's Steve,' or, 'That's Bill.' I couldn't do that before. So it's opened my entire brain to this new world."

"I describe it as doing a master's degree in tap dance," says Lawson. "In my entire dance career, of all the shows I've learned, this is the one show that will stay in you forever. You just don't let go of the material and forget it. It's your education."

And the education doesn't stop here. Next season The Souls of Our Feet hits the road as part of the National Endowment for the Arts/American Masterpieces: Dance touring roster (for which Tapestry received $25,000 in tour support). The significance of that is not lost on Gray, who notes that "there has not been a [nationally touring] tap show not based around Savion Glover on the road in a very long time." And judging by the initial response, there's an audience out there hungry for one. It's the most popular dance production on the American Masterpieces touring roster, generating more bookings than groups as prestigious as the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

That suggests that turning back to the past may be opening up a very bright future for Tapestry. Not surprisingly, Gray believes that. "I think this show is going to make a mark on tap dance in the long run."

Which must just have all those hoofers up in heaven just dancing for joy. end story

The Souls of Our Feet runs March 9-11, Friday-Saturday, 8pm; Saturday-Sunday, 2pm, at the McCullough Theatre, UT campus. For more information, call 477-6060, or visit www.tapestry.org.

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Tapestry Dance Company, Acia Gray, rhythm tap, American tap dance, The Souls of Our Feet

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