A few times a year we get a chance to collectively ask ourselves, “Who am I?” Especially during the winter holidays, traditions from the new and novel to the crushingly long-held surround every individual, leaving them to decide which ties to accept and which to let fade. We focus on the fractals of the past becoming the future a little more every year.
Acia Gray, executive and artistic director of Tapestry Dance, had to trudge through this swamp of tenses this year while planning the company’s 32nd season winter premiere, The Precious Present, which runs through December 12 at the Long Center.
The company had done The Nutcracker before. Who hadn’t? While Ballet Austin put on the traditional show upstairs at the Long Center, the jazz tap dancers below put on “tacky Christmas sweaters and played with rats in the basement.”
The problem was most of the company was gone. Because of budgetary restrictions earlier in the pandemic, Tapestry had to lay off its full-time dancers. Gray had been doing the same thing for three decades — directing a repertory company — but it was time to do something new. That meant committing to a period of self-inquiry and, ultimately, making a commitment to be especially present while figuring out the identity issue. “Who am I?” became a guiding theme.
“The name [Tapestry] was the threads of different cultures, the threads of different people, the threads of different experiences, of different dance forms to come together for a beautiful tapestry,” reflects Gray. “All the threads holding each other together, knots and all, and creating from that space.”
With this in mind, and the freedom to branch out, Gray gathered one of the most diverse sets of artists Austin will see this holiday season, united under the concept of presence far more than any recognizable winter tradition. Instead of hiring a brand-new company and training them for years to embody her own style, everyone brings their own creative identity.
The community artist showcase spans, among many other things, the poetry of Zell Miller III, the Indian classical singing of Nagavalli, and the personal reflections of the former Austin Chronicle critic Robert Faires. Dancers share styles from Spain (flamenco by Olivia Chacon), Africa (founding director of Ballet Afrique China Smith) and, uh ... Burning Man (flow arts by Kelly Bach). Gray herself and former Tapestry principal Jeremy Arnold will represent the company’s tap “threads.”
It’s a kaleidoscopic present with overlaps between performers, styles, and provenance. The music never stops; it just turns from one performance to another, with blues interludes linking each segment. Every time a soloist leaves the stage, there will be interaction with the next soloist entering.
“It was important to me to tie in the diversity of America [and] our arts ecosystem,” says Gray. “What do we all have in common? We’re in Austin, Texas, in the United States. What’s indigenous, and what really ties us all together? It all takes us back to jazz and to blues.”
Improvising is Gray’s preferred method of dealing with the present. Rather than relying on past rehearsals or a stream of known rhythms and tones, performers have to take cues from each other in the moment. Each performance has never existed before, and will never be repeated. It is unique and quickly over.
It’s also up to the audience members to allow themselves to be swept up in the creative conversation. The darkness of the theater, Gray points out, does part of the job of centering attention. The rest is mindset, especially suspending critical thoughts. Thankfully for all but the most worldly viewers, there are unknowns all over this bill, eliminating expectations and opening up an easy channel to curiosity.
“The more you know about any art form, you tend to be more critical of it just because you have the tools,” says Gray. “When you watch a dancer, if your consciousness is looking at how high their leg is going, or how fast they’re moving, it’s in one place. But if that dancer is taking you on an emotional journey, and you can feel it — and it may even bring you to tears or laughter — that’s being present.”
The Precious Present – In Love & Light runs at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center December 9-12. For tickets and a full list of performers, visit tapestry.org.