The Austin Chronicle

Tapestry Dance's One Step at a Time

The rhythm tap company's production offers not just wonderful dance but perhaps the most necessary commentary of this electoral season

Reviewed by Robert Faires, November 4, 2016, Arts

In these final days before the presidential election, with the state of the union approximating that of a driverless bus careering toward the edge of a cliff, what hope may we draw from a show that serenely promises a journey toward grace "one step at a time"?

Quite a lot, as it happens. Tapestry Dance Company's current – and most timely – production speaks to the fraught condition of our country and we the people in it, and it does so in ways both forthright and forceful, addressing head-on issues polarizing Americans: undocumented workers, climate change, racial identity, LGBT rights. But even as the show is being assertive politically, One Step at a Time keeps its focus on the humanity behind the issues, on the individuals for whom having, say, a father who emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico or a life partner of the same gender is an essential part of their character, part of what makes them who they are. The show never settles for the easy distance of abstract policy positions. Its politics are always up-close and personal.

Most of that quality comes from the five dancers who comprise this season's Tapestry troupe, each of whom take a literal turn in the spotlight at the top of the show to identify him or herself in a series of statements that all begin with the words "I am." They're declarations of individual identity that speak to race, culture, ancestry, sexual orientation, status, personal history, and self-perception. Through them, we learn not just what appeals to these artists, but what matters to them: their heritage, their wounds, the meaning in their lives. Then, when these performers do dance, what they've shared with us affects how we see them; it expands our sense of where they come from, what they've kept of it, and how they've woven it into their art. We catch the Yiddish wink in Jeremy Arnold's vaudevillian moves, the Latin flame in Andrea Torres' flamenco stomps, the Celtic sprightliness in Madeleine Owens' high steps. When Jesse Berry taps out Old World rhythms, we can almost see his Eastern European ancestors dancing beside him. When Siobhan Cook spins across the stage, her long arms outstretched, her feet sounding out percussive clicks part Irish folk, part jazz, we sense the presence of both sides of her family, the Irish and the African-American, but we also sense something new and original, something of her own that doesn't owe anything to what came before. That message is made explicit by Zell Miller III, Austin's indispensable wordsmith, who serves as the voice of the dancers when they declare "I am ..." and "I will ...," but also acts as their coach, roaming the sidelines during their dances and occasionally moving onstage to shadow them and urge them on, his rich, trenchant poetry always cutting to the heart of the matter they face and pushing them further to create a place of their own.

In this way, One Step at a Time leads us to an appreciation of our country as a place where people have the freedom not just to build on the past, but to invent a new future unfettered by history and tradition – the foundation of that mythic American dream we've cherished for so long. Actually, the first act here draws largely from Tapestry's earlier work Passing It Forward: The American Dream?, which questioned the condition of that national aspiration and ended with the dancers' commitments of "I will ...." For One Step at a Time, Tapestry Artistic Director Acia Gray – unseen onstage but whose presence is deeply felt – had added statements that begin "I hope." The idea may sound needlessly quixotic after the rooted realism of "I am" and "I will," but it adds a vital note of inspiration and helps make One Step at a Time perhaps the most necessary commentary of this electoral season. Hope is essential to the American character; it's so much of what makes us who we are. And we've heard far too little of it for many months. Hearing hopes expressed – not just generic hopes, but the hopes of these specific, diverse individuals, all young enough to be able to truly shape our future – lifts the spirit and makes the closing number, with the dancers all moving together, as one, a vision of a more perfect union.

One Step at a Time: A Journey Toward Present Grace

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
Through Nov. 6
Running time: 120 min.

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