Tapestry Dance Company live-streamed a little holiday cheer recently from Parker Jazz Club in downtown Austin. Though the troupe’s annual “Of Mice and Music – A Jazz Tap Nutcracker” was tamped down, the performers were anything but tapped out.
In a venue which typically hosts big bands and jazz ensembles, a handful of tap dancers took turns talking through their toes and giving Tchaikovsky a run for his money. It was the proud antithesis of the beloved ballet classic.
Located in the basement of a building on Fourth and Colorado streets, Parker Jazz Club was made for live music. Literally. The space’s stellar sound system is a state-of-the-art sonic womb; even online, one can appreciate the acoustics of that room.
Tapestry’s production skipped the costumes, kids, and traditional Nutcracker characters this year and went straight to the source, starting with The Soul to Sole Jazz Quartet’s rendition of “Carol of the Bells.” Featuring Austin Kimble on piano, Jeffrey Olson on drums, Paulo Santos on alto sax, and Michael Stevens on bass, Soul to Sole gladly gave their syncopated spin on the holiday classic.
Vocalist Cathie Sheridan took to the stage with “Hard Candy Christmas,” a song made famous by Dolly Parton almost 40 years ago. Sheridan’s singing style, which is more Broadway than Blue Note, worked well with the song’s down-on-your-luck lyrics: “Lord, it’s like a hard candy Christmas, I’m barely getting through tomorrow, but still I won’t let sorrow bring me way down.”
Nutcrackers across America were cancelled this year because of COVID. The perennial ballet favorite often brings in enough revenue to help keep a company afloat for the whole season. So companies, including Tapestry, had to get creative, offering socially distanced performances and virtual variety shows, in lieu of the original 2-hour full-length staging. (Husbands and dads everywhere, rejoice.)
Tapestry’s 2020 iteration clocks in at 45 minutes, enough time to shake the snow globe and watch it sparkle. The troupe’s live-streamed performance does away with props from previous years, though a certain feather boa does make an appearance.
All the performers are all in black, including black face masks, which further transforms the show’s recognizable characters into abstract archetypes. The “Arabian Dance” is particularly mystifying as performer Claire Sheek moves across stage using a simple black scarf in her solo.
Tapestry’s artistic director Acia Gray takes the traditional Nutcracker role of Drosselmeyer (the OG of creepy uncles) and turns him into a diva emcee, welcoming the audience with a few words before stepping into the ballet suite’s second movement. A sax-driven “March” makes me wonder if Tchaikovsky would have been hip enough to appreciate this new take on his score which debuted in 1892. Things suddenly speed up as the other four tap dancers chatter their way onto stage before Gray gets them going as a group.
The jazz quartet is effectively operating as a nontet, the five tap dancers serving as additional percussion. The music itself in a duet with their movement. And unlike the ballet’s original storyline, which features an opulent Christmas celebration, this version better reflects the Fauci-approved small gatherings this holiday season.
The feather boa from “Of Mice and Music” performances in years past lays dormant on the piano until Gray sweeps it around her neck at the end of her Sugar Plum Fairy solo. “The diva sets the tempo,” she dictates as the group comes together for the “Waltz of the Flowers,” its fairytale harp intro replaced by their rhythmic 1-2-3 clapping.
There is an irresistible camaraderie between the dancers, as they egg each other on, duke it out, and get into conversation with the musicians. The clarity of the ensemble is as compelling as their improvised solos. It’s the great democratic experiment, playing out on stage.
The lighting at Parker Jazz slides between blue and red, sometimes a combination of the two, and it’s easy to recall a political map just recently showing us which states voted what. An interesting association to make when watching these musicians and dancers engage in this uniquely American art form.
Things slow down for the final performance of the evening, with Cathie Sheridan’s take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” with the line “someday soon we all will be together,” feeling particularly poignant.
It’s a different kind of Nutcracker for a different kind of year. Hopefully Tapestry will be back at it next season with a full house, and a full roster. Those red and blue lights blending into something new. If the fates allow.
Watching a recording of “A Jazz Tap Holiday” at tapestry.org/jazz-tap-holiday