Dancers who complain about traveling across town to go to rehearsals should look to Heather Cornell, newest member of the Los Angeles-based Jazz Tap Ensemble. For Cornell, a New York resident, the trip to the studio is 3,000 miles.
"I'm the group's New York wing," Cornell said. "When I got the job my life was so intact in New York, I decided not to relocate."
The Jazz Tap Ensemble's intense touring schedule makes this unusual arrangement viable. After a short rehearsal period in Los Angeles the company takes to the road. Home for the Ensemble's three dancers and three musicians then becomes whatever city they spend the night in.
This year the list includes Le Havre, Grenoble, Dijon and Aix-en-Provence, France; Lubbock, Tex.; Buffalo, N.Y., and Philadelphia, as well as the Beverly Theatre in Los Angeles on Saturday night. The ensemble also will appear at the L.A. Theatre Center, May 12, as part of the "Locomotion" series.
Cornell, 29, had auditioned for Jazz Tap Ensemble two years earlier but artistic director Lynn Dally and co-founder Fred Strickler chose local dancer Linda Sohl-Donnell for the position. When Sohl-Donnell left in 1985 to pursue her own artistic endeavors, Cornell was called.
Like Dally and Strickler, Cornell was a modern dancer before returning to an earlier love, tap dance. Canadian-born Cornell was so sure she had left tap behind when she went to try her luck as a modern dancer in New York that she never told her new colleagues she could tap. The word got out because of Cornell's tendency to tap her toes--rapidly, nervously--in situations where non-dancers might bite their fingernails.
"Whenever my mind is somewhere else I start tapping--at a bus stop, for instance--or when I'm sitting, my feet start tapping under the table," she said.
She recalled standing and tapping in this manner while getting ready to perform in a modern dance concert. After the concert the choreographer offered to buy Cornell a pair of tap shoes if she would tap-dance in the next concert. Cornell agreed.
According to Dally and Strickler, Cornell was chosen for the ensemble because of her wide range of interests. She has studied ballet in addition to tap dance and is now studying acting.
"There's something special about the combination," Dally said. "Heather has strength as a rhythm dancer and then there's the acting sensibility on top of that. She performs one of her own choreographies, 'Rainbow,' to the Harold Arlen tune 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' and there's a depth of emotion to it rather than just 'emoting.' "
Strickler also spoke of Cornell's "dramatic edge" and what it brings to an ensemble repertory piece such as "Blues Suite."
"The sense of the work is a kind of mutual seduction," he said, "and Heather dances it with a certain sensuality--without being overt, but it's there nonetheless."
Strickler described the new company member as "languid and willowy," while Dally points out her "childlike quality," but one characteristic they agree on is the element of humor in Cornell's own tap work.
Cornell, who has performed a number of comic dance roles--including a concert tour as a tap-dancing clown--calls comedy one of her specialties. There are plans to add some of her comic dances to the Jazz Tap Ensemble repertory next season. On the current tour her choreographic contribution, in addition to the "Rainbow" solo, is "Bossa Nova," a Latin rhythm piece that Cornell co-choreographed and originally performed with her husband, New York dancer Jamie Cunneen, and the solo "Tricortism."
Dally said that bringing new dancers with new personalities and new areas of focus into the group is easy because of the broad concept on which Jazz Tap Ensemble was founded in 1979.
"The basic idea is tap dancing and jazz music and how they speak to each other," she said.
Dally said she has a vision not only of keeping tap dancing alive, but also of connecting the art form's many generations.
"I'd like us to bring together a wide range of artists with different abilities and different sensibilities--each one contributing ideas. We can be a little microcosm of tap.
"That is why each member of the Jazz Tap Ensemble has to be simultaneously a team player and a soloist. And Heather is very strongly both."