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A New Season Begins 

Ballet Tucson leaps ahead thanks to the misfortune of other companies

Ballet Pacifica's loss is Ballet Tucson's gain.

Ditto for Ohio Ballet.

With troubled ballet companies around the country pulling back or closing altogether, Tucson's own professional troupe is fattening its ranks with dance refugees. The company's two new artistic associates and new executive director, along with several new dancers, all fled to Ballet Tucson after the demise or disabling of their troupes.

Jeffrey Graham Hughes, former artistic director of Ohio Ballet, becomes Ballet Tucson's executive director. Dancer Damien Highfield, also of the Ohio, joins the retooled lineup of principal dancers, and so does Samantha Chang, formerly of Ballet Pacifica.

But the biggest stars picked up by the Tucson troupe are Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, formerly with top-ranking American Ballet Theatre in New York. Most recently with Ballet Pacifica, the two will become artistic associates in Tucson, training young dancers and occasionally performing.

"Primarily, they will be balletmasters and coaches," says artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana, who founded the troupe 21 years ago. (This is its third season with paid professional dancers.) "Dancers auditioning with us wanted to come here to be trained by them. They will further solidify our stature in the West."

The husband-and-wife team, who have guest-starred with Ballet Tucson numerous times over the last half-dozen years, were available full time because of the implosion of Pacifica.

McKerrow retired in 2005 from ABT after 23 years, dancing a final Giselle with ABT superstar Ethan Stiefel. The Orange County company has long had a training school, but they'd hired Stiefel to create a top-notch performing company, Cabana says. Considered by many to be the top danseur today, Stiefel in turn tapped his buds Gardner (who'd also danced with White Oak Project) and McKerrow to be assistant director and balletmistress.

But the Pacifica board failed to raise enough money to underwrite the whole enterprise, Cabana says. The performing season never materialized, and "Ethan pulled out." McKerrow and Gardner ran the school for a year, but they "didn't want to continue without Ethan." Ballet Tucson snapped them up.

"John and Amanda will be here all season," Cabana says. "I don't know how long they'll be here, but they love Tucson and the warm weather, and they've had good interactions with people."

The pair will showcase their artistry in their new hometown in a concert Halloween weekend. Though the main production will be a brand-new Hunchback of Notre Dame, choreographed by Lawrence Pech, resident choreographer of San Francisco Opera, McKerrow and Gardner will dance a venerable Balanchine duet one night only, at the Oct. 28 gala. The piece is "The Man I Love," from Balanchine's 1960 evening-length tribute to Gershwin, "Who Cares?"

"There's so much excitement about having them here," Cabana says. "The kids and the dancers are thrilled."

Cabana had no trouble persuading her new executive director to come to the Southwest from Akron, where he had been artistic director of Ohio Ballet since 1999. The troubled Ohio troupe may follow the fate of the Cleveland Ballet, which closed in 2000.

"No season is planned," says Hughes, who arrived in Tucson with his wife, dancer Pamela Reyman, and their small daughter in mid-August. "The hoped-for turnaround didn't materialize. It's a difficult environment."

A longtime friend of Cabana and her one-time dance partner at Cleveland, Hughes had a long career dancing with the likes of the Joffrey and London Festival ballets. When he moved into teaching and managing, he worked with the Hong Kong Ballet, Ballet de Monterrey, Mexico, and Alonzo King's LINES Contemporary Ballet in San Francisco. But he'd done some guest choreography for Ballet Tucson, and he sees his new home as a city with an "opportunity to be a big player."

He decided to come "based on the strength of our artistic friendship and my respect for Ballet Arts," the school associated with Ballet Tucson. "It's one of the best schools in the country."

He knows its strengths firsthand: Two Ballet Arts alumnae danced for him in Ohio, including Amanda Cobb, who's now gone on to ABT.

In Tucson, he'll do a little choreographing, particularly on Paquita, another ballet on the October program, and Swan Lake, a full production scheduled for early May. (The company has five concerts planned, including The Nutcracker in December, Dance and Dessert in March and a choreography showcase in April.)

But Hughes is more focused on the "creative excitement" of the executive director tasks that await.

"I'll be redeveloping the outreach program, developing the audience, fundraising, creating relationships with other organizations, like Arizona Theatre Company," he says. "This company has a great history already. It's on the threshold of national recognition. But there's still room in the theatre for folks to come."

Among the dancers, the troupe's headliners, Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup, remain for the third season. A number of other dancers have departed, replaced by three new men and three new women. Cabana has also strengthened her apprenticeship program, hiring eight paid apprentices. One of the new principal dancers, Aurora Frey (returning to Tucson from Alabama Ballet), and three of the apprentices, Celina Ginn, Megan Terry and Isaac Sharratt, all trained at Ballet Arts.

"This is the next phase," Cabana says. "We spend 10 years training kids, then they have to leave town to dance. For my purposes, this completes the picture. We train them from their first steps and take them all the way to the professional realm."

pening the Tucson dance season this weekend is another local kid all grown up.

Now heading his own dance company, Todd Wilson trained at A Tucson Dance Company, at Tucson High Magnet school and at the UA School of Dance before going off to Los Angeles to study on scholarship at EDGE Performing Arts Center. Wilson performed with Dance With the Force in Korea, and on Princess Cruises; he also did commercial Hollywood work, in films and "industrials." Wilson has taught in the United States, the Caribbean and Australia.

Wearying of the travel, he says, he's come home to create the eponymous Todd Wilson Dance Theatre. The new troupe, blending ballet, jazz and hip-hop, debuts with an intimate affair, a concert billed as a "choreography preview and premiere."

"I trained at so many facilities and in so many dance styles that my work is diverse," he says. "It's contemporary; it's classical; it's urban; it's flashy. I'm ecstatic about bringing this stuff back here."

Wilson is now co-artistic director of A Tucson Dance Company, and the show takes place in the company studios.

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More by Margaret Regan

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