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Interview with Heather Cornell, 2018

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Interview with Heather Cornell, 2018
Cornell, Heather (Interviewee)
Morigerato, Anthony (Interviewer)

Dance Oral History Project

Dates / Origin
Date Created: 2018-09-19 - 2018-09-21
Library locations
Jerome Robbins Dance Division
Shelf locator: *MGZMT 3-3475
Cornell, Heather
Cunningham, Merce
Brown, Buster, 1913-2002
Cook, Charles, 1917-1991
Green, Chuck
Browne, Harriet
Condos, Steve
Saunders, Keith, 1960-
Brown, Ray, 1926-2002
Cunneen, Jamie
Leonhardt, David
Hill, Jeannie
Minery, Michael
Strickler, Fred
Oliver, Shelley
Scopino, Tony
Jazz Tap Ensemble
Tap dancers
Tap dancing
Dance -- Production and direction
Tap dancing -- Study and teaching
Improvisation in dance
Dance -- Economic aspects
Dance festivals
Tap dance music
Oral histories
Content: Interview with Heather Cornell conducted by Anthony Morigerato on September 19, 20, and 21, 2018, in New York City (N.Y.), for the Dance Oral History Project of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, New York, N.Y.
Content: Sound quality is excellent.
Venue: Recorded for for the Dance Oral History Project of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts 2018, September 19, 20, and 21 New York (N.Y.).
Funding: The creation and cataloging of this recording was made possible in part by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. The support of the National Endowment for the Arts is also gratefully acknowledged.
Physical Description
Born digital
Extent: 9 audio files (approximately 8 hr. and 41 min.)
Streaming file 1, September 19, 2018 (approximately 1 hour and 53 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about her childhood in Hamilton, Ontario and her family background including her father who was a tap dancer and her mother who was an educator; her early dance training including tap dancing; her teacher Dot Blakely and the CDTA (Canadian Dance Teachers Association) syllabus; her hiatus from dance from age 14 through 20; matriculating at Grant MacEwan Community College, in Edmonton, and dancing with the Alberta Contemporary Dance Theater; her return to tap dancing and learning about jazz music while at the College; her insistence on live music when performing; studying modern dance at York University and participating in (extra-curricular) tap dancing classes; working with the music students at York University; Peggy McCann, her composition teacher, and their founding of a dance company, Peggy McCann and Dancers; learning early on the necessity of self-advocacy; tap dancing as an art form that requires the combining of improvisation, music, theater, and dance; her impressions of Douglas Dunn as a guest teacher at York University; leaving York University in her third year and moving to New York to study Merce Cunningham technique; requesting permission from Merce Cunningham to take the company class; her reasons for not continuing with this class; how her experience with Cunningham technique contributed to her creative process and approach to movement including his use of rhythm and chance; other techniques she studied in New York including [José] Limón and ballet; reasons she has stayed away from jazz dance; her acting teachers including Tom [Thomas G.] Waites; leaving her acting career to dance with the Jazz Tap Ensemble; her first tap dance mentor [Charles] "Cookie" Cook including his gift for comedy; training with Cook and other members of the Copasetics as a kind of apprenticeship, in particular in the art of performing; two anecdotes that illustrate Cook's character; learning from Cook about the tone of the (tap) sound; reminiscences of Cookie Cook and Friends including some memorable performances; her regret that she never studied with Leon [Collins]; her experience of what she describes as the tap family; [her mentors'] emphasis on dancing in your own style; Buster Brown and what she learned from him including swing and ballads; Buster Brown as a person; Chuck Green as person and as a dancer; learning about time from him; a performance anecdote about Chuck Green and Buster Brown; Steve Condos and his drum-derived tap dance rudiments; working with him as he created Grounded for Manhattan Tap; Eddie Brown, including his gift for improvisation and the difficulty of his technique [ends abruptly but continues on streaming file 2]. Streaming file 2, September 19, 2018 (approximately 13 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about Eddie Brown and his teaching her to improvise; how she feels about her tap mentors including her view of them as her family; their mutual rediscovery and revitalization of the art of tap dancing; her sense that today there is too much focus on the steps as steps. Streaming file 3, September 20, 2018 (approximately one hour and 53 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about the origins of Manhattan Tap including its charter members: Jamie Cunneen, Shelley Oliver, and Tony Scopino; her professional experience before forming Manhattan Tap including dancing for Andrea Levine; her experience working with Noel Parenti and his clown show; Gail Conrad and her story-based tap dance shows; Anita Feldman's choreography; performing with Jazz Tap Ensemble on tour including the challenge of choreographing her own work to perform with the Ensemble; her relationship with Lynn Dally at the time, and now; returning to the nascent Manhattan Tap after her year with Jazz Tap Ensemble; Fred Strickler mentoring her during the beginning of Manhattan Tap and his choreographing for her and the company; Manhattan Tap's early days; how her experience auditioning for Twyla Tharp in the Broadway musical Singin' in the rain stimulated her to create work for herself; the first music director for Manhattan Tap, David Leonhardt; The chair dance including the circumstances of its creation; Harriet "Quicksand" Browne and her passing on of the technique of sand dancing to the Manhattan Tap dancers; The sand dance as a tribute to Harriet Browne; how Cornell has used sand technique in her work; her Scrapple from the apple; the longevity of these three works; the difficulty she had teaching these works and others to newer members of Manhattan Tap; the mutability of most of Manhattan Tap's repertoire with regard to the gender and number of dancers, and orchestration; an anecdote about Cookie Cook and a Manhattan Tap performance at Riverside Church; her decision to have Manhattan Tap perform in jazz clubs; their regular Monday performances at the Village Gate; Kevin Ramsey and the scene at the Village Gate; the finances of Manhattan Tap including the problems with relying on grants; her mentors' relationship with Manhattan Tap; balancing her roles as dancer and director [ends abruptly but continues on streaming file 4]. Streaming file 4, September 20, 2018 (approximately 11 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about the musical directors for Manhattan Tap, David Leonhardt and, later, Keith Saunders, as well as the musicians who performed with them; Manhattan Tap's experience in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square incident; the various events that led to all of the original company dancers leaving except for two apprentices, Max Pollack and Jeannie Hill; aspects of Manhattan Tap in which she takes the greatest pride. Streaming file 5, September 20, 2018 (approximately 8 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about Ray Brown including how they first met and her learning about music and professionalism from him. Streaming file 6, September 20, 2018 (approximately one hour and 53 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about how she came to choreograph Ray Brown's composition Gumbo hump; putting together a group of dancers to perform it; her shift from collaborating with her dancers to collaborating with her musicians; Manhattan Tap's musical director, Keith Saunders; working with Ray Brown as she choreographed Gumbo hump; her new group of dancers (after almost all her dancers left Manhattan Tap): Lisa Hopkins, Jeannie Hill, and Max Pollack; the popularity with audiences of Gumbo hump; her thoughts on musical theater; her view that dancers should, within certain limits, express their individual voices; the apprentice company for Manhattan Tap; her collaborations with Keith Saunders; some of the venues where her group performed during this time (mid-1990s); Michael Minery; the show The Magic Hat; her learning to play the djembe and how this led to her experimenting (outside of Manhattan Tap) with world music; some of the musicians with whom she worked and venues where they performed; expanding the apprentice program (around 1995) in anticipation of several significant upcoming engagements; her collaboration with Josh Danilo (and other musicians) on a show featuring world music [at the Harlem School of the Arts]; her second show at the Harlem School of the Arts, which was more jazz-centric; Michael Minery's joining the company; Ray's suite, a collaboration with Ray Brown; choreographing Ray's suite, with the help of Max [Pollack] and Mike [Michael Minery] while on tour; putting the work together with Ray Brown on their return to New York including their creative differences; Max [Pollack] including his memorable solo performance in Ray's suite; her solo in Ray's suite; Ray Brown as a musician; Keith Terry and her collaboration with him (and Crosspulse) on a show at the Joyce Theater; some of the dancers who performed in the show including Olivia Rosenkrantz; touring with Manhattan Tap after the Joyce Theater show; reducing her touring after the arrival of her new-born daughter and the terrorist attack of September 11 [2001]; Ann Stewart and the company's management after she left; feeling that she had reached a crossroads in her career [ends abruptly but continues on streaming file 7]. Streaming file 7, September 20, 2018 (approximately 4 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about her hope for recognition of Manhattan Tap's legacy and for recognition that tap dancers are also musicians; her wish to see some of Manhattan Tap's works revisited on stages today. Streaming file 8, September 21, 2018 (approximately 1 hour and 53 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about her daughter, Soné and son Egan; how being a mother changed her professional life, in particular with respect to touring; negotiating the frequent and abrupt transitions between life at home with her children and her professional life; how she prepares for a performance (on a split bill), including her focus on the musicians; Egan's birth, when she was 46; choreographing the Broadway play The play what I wrote including how she came to be hired; the experience of teaching the choreography to a new guest star every two weeks; the challenges of choreographing the show; her natural desire to direct including when she has wanted to suppress this inclination; Manhattan Tap's 2004 reunion tour, in France, ways in which her work and Manhattan Tap have had a ripple effect in the tap dance world; the extent to which this legacy has been overlooked and misrepresented; starting her solo career, with a collaboration with Lewis Nash in 2005; various disruptions in her personal life; her collaboration [Finding] Synthesea with Andy Milne for the London Jazz Festival in 2007, including how this prompted her to recognize that she was a textural dancer; how an invitation from Sas Selfjord to the Vancouver Tap Festival led Cornell to bring together a group of Canadian tap dancers, Canned Tap; their three seasons at the Festival; other performances by this group; her view of herself as a musician whose instrument is tap and how this has driven her choice of music for her choreography; her use mainly of jazz music for Manhattan Tap; her working (outside of Manhattan Tap) with world music, in particular African music; her feeling that much of the tap dance world is resistant to moving in new directions and her desire to see more creativity; [Finding] Synthesea, Short Stories, and Canned Tap as experiments in new approaches; her show Conversations, which she created at Capilano University in 2008, including its use of improvisation; her use of the audience, to create tension in a performance of Conversations and to shape the direction of a show she performed in Turku, Finland; how this illustrates the relationship of chaos and form in her work; the completely improvised show Taps and traps she performed with the percussionist Jesse [Stewart]; tap dance as music and her wish to reach audiences outside of the tap dance world [ends abruptly but continues on streaming file 9]. Streaming file 9, September 21, 2018 (approximately 33 minutes). Heather Cornell speaks with Anthony Morigerato about how her efforts to place more emphasis on a performance's aural aspects led to creating the band, Making Music Dance; her collaboration with the Spanish classical dancer, Anna de la Paz (and others) in the band; how this led, in turn to their making an audio-only studio recording; the Walk to the Beat annual festival [2013-2015; in Nyack (N.Y.)]; her participation in BogoTap, in Bogota, Colombia; participating in the first intentional Zap (Zapateo) festival in Peru, in particular the festival's profound impact on her artistically and emotionally; her view that the future of tap lies in looking back at its legacy before forging forward; reflections on her career and being a mother; the roles of improvisation and instinct in her life.
Type of Resource
Sound recording
RLIN/OCLC: 1190698922
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b22251839
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): e9cec3d0-c9de-0138-1090-13fe92e61848
Rights Statement
This item is protected by copyright and/or related rights. You are free to use this Item in any way that is permitted by the copyright and related rights legislation that applies to your use. For other uses you need to obtain permission from the rights-holder(s).

Item timeline of events

  • 2018: Created (Approximate)
  • 2020: Digitized
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MLA Format

Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Heather Cornell, 2018" The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 2018 - 2018.

Chicago/Turabian Format

Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. "Interview with Heather Cornell, 2018" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 18, 2024.

APA Format

Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library. (2018 - 2018). Interview with Heather Cornell, 2018 Retrieved from

Wikipedia Citation

<ref name=NYPL>{{cite web | url= | title= (sound recording) Interview with Heather Cornell, 2018, (2018 - 2018)|author=Digital Collections, The New York Public Library |accessdate=July 18, 2024 |publisher=The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations}}</ref>

Interview with Heather Cornell, 2018