As I approached the Long Center via the South First Street bridge, my eyes lingered on the candy cane-striped columns adorning the performing arts center’s downtown-facing patio, good advertisement for the complex’s hosting of not one, but two "Nutcrackers" that weekend: Ballet Austin’s classical version in Dell Hall, and local dance academy and professional tap troupe Tapestry Dance Company’s anything-but-traditional "Of Mice and Music: A Jazz Nutcracker" in the Rollins.
On Friday evening, I was there to see "Of Mice and Music" (running through Sunday), a holiday tradition for Tapestry that gives the academy’s dancers, age 4 through adults, the opportunity to participate in a professional-level theatrical experience, complete with live music.
Conceived and directed by Tapestry artistic director Acia Gray, the production offers a modern take on a classic. The two-act ballet is whittled down to a one-act, one-hour version that includes tap and lyrical choreography, all set to a jazz-quartet score by Blue J, a reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s classical score.
In Tapestry’s production, Clara (danced by academy student Sydney Gallagher) is a modern-day teenager, complete with cell phone; her mother is a woman who shrieks at the sight of giant mice (can’t we all relate?).
Tapestry’s academy dancers make up several groups: the Rhythm Boys, an all-boys tap ensemble taught exclusively by men; Visions in Rhythm, for young dancers who spend at least 10 hours a week training across dance styles; and Visions in Motion, reserved for adult dance students. Then, of course, there is the professional tap company, North America’s only full-time professional tap troupe.
Moms and dads, grandmothers and grandfathers, sisters and brothers, families and friends — all were at the show to support Tapestry’s students. The audience was littered with video cameras and congratulatory bouquets of flowers stashed under chairs and in laps, awaiting the inevitable post-performance clutch of the performers.
Before the performance had even started, the jazz quartet was already playing such holiday favorites as "Jingle Bells" and the "Jingle Bell Rock." The visual centerpiece onstage was a 20-foot Christmas tree.
"Of Mice and Music" is filled with all the usual characters, but presents them with a twist, from the tacky-Christmas-sweater-donning party-goers, to the Nutcracker and the Rat King, who do battle not with canons and swords, but via a dance-off.
Aww-ing over the sweet innocence of the pink-leotard-and-tights baby mice, who traipse behind the Rat King (played by professional company member Tony Merriwether), gives way to ooh-ing at the tuxedo-donning rats — the older children who clearly have tap chops to demonstrate.
The production is also an opportunity to check out Tapestry’s new professional company dancers (the only returning member this season is Siobhan Cook). As the Russian toy, Jeremy Arnold popped around the stage self-assuredly; Michael Love’s interpretation of the Spanish toy involved lightening-quick footwork with handclaps for accents; and special guest Rebecca Whitehurst’s Marzipan doll was an over-the-top French coquette who elicited much laughter from the audience.
With its mix of professional and amateur performances, "Of Mice and Music" has an appeal to audiences beyond the family and friends of the performers. If you’re looking for something Christmas-y with a touch of modern this season, look no further than Tapestry’s production.