Each summer, when the days are long and the sun shines bright, Nanette Robinson thinks about winter's shadows.
The artistic director of Tucson's ZUZI! Dance Company, Robinson directs the company's annual Solstice concert during December's darkest days. But she starts the planning in the white-hot summer. She dreamed up this year's theme, House Made of Light, while she was spending time by a lake.
"I was watching the light reflecting on the water, and thinking about a lighthouse, a safe harbor," she says.
She had been reading House of Light, a book by Mary Oliver, a writer she calls an "amazing poet." In Oliver's work, "Everything is based in nature," Robinson says. "And our solstice shows are elemental and nature-based, honoring ancient light and ancestors."
Hand-crafted lanterns will be set along the edge of the stage for this weekend's concerts, 12th in the annual Solstice series. The final show is on Monday, on the solstice itself, the shortest day and longest night of the year.
Behind the flickering lanterns, all 30 cast members will perform the opening piece, "I Am Lifted," to live music composed and performed by Pablo Peregrina. A guitarist and vocalist, Peregrina will be joined onstage by percussionist Bubba Fass.
Most of the 12 modern dances in the show play with images of light and dark, including Robinson's "Waves of Light," a work for six dancers, and her duet "Mirrored Sky." Company members Maria Sara Villa and Scott Bird dance "Sky" to more live music by Peregrina and Fass.
"Pablo plays the guitar and sings," Robinson says. "He crafted the lyrics from a poem I gave him."
In fact, there's lots of live music in House. Peregrina and Fass play for the closing number as well. Singer Sally Withers delivers vocals during a midconcert interlude, accompanying a spoken-word narrative by Sariya Jarasviroj Brown. And right after Withers' song, company dancer Audrey Copeland gets off her feet and sits down to play the cello in "Counter Collaborative."
Choreographed in collaboration with the five dancers who perform it, "Counter" is a comical piece by ZUZI member Karyn Reim, Robinson says. Copeland diligently plays Bach onstage, and the five dancers "keep taking away her cello. She's in her practice mode, and they're bothering her."
The show's 30 dancers include ZUZI's own members, its apprentices and youth dancers, and a group of six private citizens who are in this year's community piece, "Chiaroscuro." This dance is always intensively workshopped over months, and participating nondancers write poems and improvise movement on the show's theme.
"I asked a few questions of the participants," Robinson says, such as, "How does your house mirror your self?" and, "How are you going to bring light into your life?"
Robinson and the community dancers share credit for the choreography. A few of them have had some movement experience. Ranging from age 14 to 70-something, they include Brown, who is a ZUZI board member and former semi-pro figure skater, and Justina Curtis, who works in physical therapy in Sierra Vista.
"She's a beautiful young dancer," Robinson says, "and we've now invited her to be an apprentice."
The five current apprentices take their turn in the tango-flavored "Ashes," choreographed by ZUZI dancer Sara Anderson Stewart. Eight young dancers in the Many Limbs youth company dance in Alison Hart's "Together We Shine." The Beatles' song "Here Comes the Sun" is part of the soundscape. Hart also choreographed "Lightning Calls My Name," a piece she dances with four other ZUZI troupers to music by Regina Spektor.
Other ZUZI dancers turning to choreography include Mirela Roza and Monica Weinheimer. The two dance their own duet, "Haptonomia," moving through long lengths of colored silks.
Beth Braun, an accomplished choreographer who's the troupe's associate artistic director, delivers "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." The piece is set to a poignant song of the same title by her late husband, Arthur Miscione, a musician who frequently collaborated with Braun and ZUZI. He died in April 2005.
Braun dances to his taped vocals and guitar, with seven other ZUZI dancers, bringing the light of dance into the winter darkness.