During vaudeville’s heyday, the grandest show palaces along Canal Street — Saenger, Orpheum, Shubert and Loew’s State Theatre — featured variety acts, comedy and, always, tap dancing.
“Tap dancing was universally popular. It is hard to exaggerate the enthusiasm for it,” wrote Agnes DeMille, founder of the American Dance Theater, in her history of dance. Motion pictures in the 1920s and ‘30s made tap dancing world famous.
Now, Gulf Coast Theatre on Tap is reviving a native New Orleans dance tradition in “Neutral Ground,” an exuberant new production to be held at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Thursday, October 9 through Sunday, October 12.
“The company’s primary goals are to celebrate, promote and preserve America’s indigenous dance form in the birthplace of jazz and to blend the two syncopated art forms together in a unique way,” said Heidi Malnar, Gulf Coast Theatre artistic director and founder.
Tap dancing and jazz music evolved simultaneously, so company dancers will share NOCCA’s Lupin Hall stage (2800 Chartres) with a live, seven-piece New Orleans jazz ensemble and three vocalists.
The energetic expression of tap will be accompanied by the revered sounds of New Orleans’ legends Louis Prima, Irma Thomas and Louis Armstrong, as well as contemporary music from Galactic, Rebirth Brass Band and Ernie K-Doe.
“Neutral Ground” will capture the history of local music, opening with a medley of two New Orleans’ standards, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and “Bourbon Street Parade.” In another performance, Danielle Harrell Scheib, granddaughter of Pete Fountain, has choreographed a tribute to the renowned clarinetist.
Audiences will be invited to join in, singing and tapping in their seats to “Iko Iko,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Go to the Mardi Gras” and, of course, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.”
“I took a leap of faith and moved to New Orleans with the goal of starting a rhythm tap company in the city that created jazz music,” Malnar said.
Originally from Chicago, she was a company member of the Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, directed by Billy Siegenfeld, which garnered multiple Emmy Awards for a PBS documentary.
Locally, Malnar has choreographed other notable local productions, including Annie, 42nd Street, 13 and Spamalot, with Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts. She is currently choreographing America’s Wartime Sweethearts: The Andrew Sisters and Mysterious Wisterias at the World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen and will be assistant directing and choreographing Peter and the Starcatcher at Le Petit and choreographing NOCCA’s musical, 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee.
Show times are 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and 2 p.m. for the Sunday matinee.
Tickets are $30 for adults, $25 for seniors and $15 for students with valid IDs.