Tap That Nut

In Tapestry's 'Of Mice & Music,' dance is more than the medium; it's the message

Tapestry Dance Company Artistic Director Acia Gray
Tapestry Dance Company Artistic Director Acia Gray

When Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky composed the score to The Nutcracker, he did more than musically evoke a host of sweets; he concocted a confection all his own. His melodies for that ballet are so amiable to the listener, so impossibly tuneful and catchy, they instantaneously carve a sugary groove in your brain. They are the original ear candy.

No offense to choreographer George Balanchine, whose version in the 1950s did so much to popularize The Nutcracker as a seasonal tradition, or to Marius Petipa, who choreographed the ballet's premiere back in 1892, or even to E.T.A. Hoffmann, who penned the original story on which the ballet is based, but you can't talk about The Nutcracker's enduring appeal without that music, that specific combination of rhythms, notes, and beats that caramelizes inside your auditory senses and gives them a sugar rush. You don't need to have ever seen the ballet to know the score, so to speak; its sweet allure permeates the culture. It's that music that Walt Disney wanted in the leadoff spot in his animated film Fantasia and that Spike Jones chose to burlesque with cowbells, pennywhistles, and silly lyrics, that sweet music that Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn were inspired to spice up with a jazz setting and that the Invincible Czars decided to rock out, creating a new Austin holiday tradition in the process. (See "The Czars Were Brightly Shining.")

And now it's Tchaikovsky's irresistible rhythms – and, in fact, rhythm itself – that is inspiring the latest dance variation on The Nutcracker, what Tapestry Dance Company Artistic Director Acia Gray considers an Austin-tatious spin on the yuletide perennial. In Of Mice & Music, which opens at Salvage Vanguard Theater on Monday, dance isn't just the medium for telling the story, it's the message, with the tale's enchanted cracker of nuts now representing tap and introducing girl heroine Clara to a world of rhythm, embodied in a new hepped-up version of Tchaikovsky's score by local jazz trio Blue J.

Brenna Kuhn rehearsing the Spanish Dance
Brenna Kuhn rehearsing the Spanish Dance

"Deirdre and I have wanted to do this forever. Forever," says Gray, speaking of her partner and Tapestry co-founder, Deirdre Strand. Their initial plan was to choreograph dances to the Ellington/Strayhorn Nutcracker Suite that has been captivating fans for almost a half-century, though at just 30 minutes it's awfully brief for a full-length production. They also considered getting the rights to Clara's Dream: A Jazz Nutcracker, a production that's been a hit for Portsmouth, N.H.-based MaD Theatricals, "but the more we talked about it, the more I was interested in getting our own arrangements," says Gray. Still, the project kept getting sidelined; if the timing wasn't right, there were budgetary concerns. Then, according to the artistic director, Tapestry board President Victoria Osborne pressed the matter, indicating the need for the company to do more and be seen more. That, combined with Gray finding a band that was, pardon the pun, jazzed about adapting Tchaikovsky's score, led to Gray realizing her longtime dream during her company's 20th anniversary season.

Tapestry and Blue J crossed paths in the South Congress restaurant Botticelli's, where the dancers were engaged in one of their periodic Tappy Hour performances and the musicians had an evening gig. Guitarist Jim Collard, bassist Josh Espinoza, and drummer Jason Flenniken so liked what they saw (and heard) that they suggested teaming up with the dance company. "So many musicians have never experienced the world of tap dance and having them as soloists, and they were thrilled," says Gray. "And I'm thrilled that we're working with musicians who are excited about doing something different." The score they have developed will feature Tchaikovsky's melodies reworked in jazz arrangements, naturally, but also other musical styles such as reggae, a few traditional jazz numbers, and some pieces that fuse the two. For instance, Gray notes, in the company's annual Soul to Sole Festival, the dancers always perform a dance called the Walk Around, or the Coles Stroll, in honor of its creator, the legendary hoofer Charles "Honi" Coles. As "it's traditionally done to 'Take the "A" Train,'" she says, "I asked them to take 'Waltz of the Snowflakes' and put it in 4/4 time with an '"A" Train' feel. So you'll hear '"A" Train' and 'Snowflakes' intermingled. It's wonderful to recognize those melodies in different ways."

The story to Of Mice & Music ought to be as recognizable to fans of the classic Nutcracker as those Tchaikovsky melodies will be, albeit with tweaks that suit this particular dance company. Clara and the Nutcracker will do a soft-shoe together. The individual solos in the Land of the Sweets will showcase the improvisational skills of the Tapestry company members. And that battle between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker? It'll be a tap challenge performed to Charles Mingus' classic "Haitian Fight Song." "The Mouse King won't necessarily lose," says Gray. "He'll just say, 'You earned your spot.'"

Gray, who will be taking on the pivotal role of Drosselmeyer, sees this year's production as a workshop to see how their adaptation hangs together. But her idea is definitely to develop this into a Tapestry tradition, one that unites the company's professional dancers with the rising stars of its preapprentice youth company, Visions in Rhythm, and the children, youth, and adults who study with its dance academy, so that the city can appreciate and share in that love for rhythm and movement that her company is about. "For me," Gray says, "the excitement about this is pulling the community together around Tapestry and having a blast with this music."

Of Mice & Magic will be performed Monday-Thursday, Dec. 14-17, 7pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit www.tapestry.org.

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Tapestry Dance Company, Of Mice & Magic, Acia Gray, Dierdre Strand, Blue J, Victoria Osborne, Invincible Czars, The Nutcracker, Golden Arm Trio, Visions in Rhythm

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