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Bird Brains 

Four choreographers put their heads together for a modern-dance treatment of 'The Firebird.'

A couple of years ago, Leigh Ann Rangel of NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre was taking a theater management class for her master's degree. When the students were asked to imagine an unusual dance production, Rangel remembers, "I came up with the idea of a ballet turned into modern dance."

Whether any of the other projects ever made it past the homework stage is an open question, but Rangel's brainstorm will be made into flesh this weekend at Pima Community College. NEW ART, a 6-year-old professional dance company co-directed by Rangel and Tammy Rosen, is staging the ballet classic The Firebird as a modern work.

"This is our first evening-length story," Rangel says. "It's been a really fun process."

Known for their experimental work, Rangel and Rosen first had to decide which story ballet would translate best into the modern idiom. They consulted Tommy Parlon, an independent choreographer now based in Washington, D.C., who had worked with NEW ART before.

"He suggested The Firebird," Rangel says. "The music by Stravinsky is so wonderful, we decided to do it. There are hundreds of versions of the folk tale, but we used the version Balanchine used."

The ballet actually dates back to 1910, when Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine staged it in Paris to Igor Stravinsky's music. George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins famously rechoreographed it for the New York City Ballet in 1949. NEW ART's hour-long version is danced modern-style--the fine dancer Charles Thompson of Tucson's Orts Theatre of Dance takes on the central role of the Prince--but it relies on numerous ballet conventions. For one thing, there's an elaborate set, a first for NEW ART. Designed by Steve Elton, it represents first a city and then the enchanted forest-garden where the Firebird lives. And typically for ballet, the story is filled with costumed fairy-tale characters: a Prince, a magical Firebird, a bevy of princesses and a phalanx of monsters.

"We're hoping it will be a crossover, and appeal to a ballet audience," Rosen says. "They may not know what modern dance really is. We're hoping it will get them in the door."

The story does get a bit of a modern twist, Rangel says, recast as a psychological journey out of depression. Troubled by urban angst, the Prince flees into the forest and falls in love with one of the princesses frolicking there. Alas, his monsters follow him, but the Firebird helps him find the strength to combat them. Not so incidentally, the plot allows for what Rosen says is a great battle scene.

To fill the 18-member cast, NEW ART deployed its own dancers--Amanda Stevenson is the Firebird and Rangel is the Prince's true love--and borrowed several from Orts, including Katie Rutterer and Thompson. Four teen dancers from NEW ART's new youth ensemble also have small parts.

"There is a moment where every single dancer shines," Rosen says.

Making the project even more complicated, the NEW ART directors decided to use no fewer than four choreographers for their modern Firebird. Rangel, Rosen, fellow NEW ARTer Kelly Silliman and guest artist Parlon each choreographed separate segments. The Washington choreographer, whose dances have "tons of floor work, throwing bodies and rolling," was a natural for the monster sequence, Rosen says. Parlon studied dance at ASU and first met the NEW ART team when he collaborated with independent choreographer Ellen Bromberg on a Tucson project five years ago; he composed another piece for NEW ART shortly after that. This January, he came to town to set his new monster piece on the dancers.

"He came up with the idea of the monsters costumed in tattered business suits--they're kind of crazy urban businessmen," Rangel says.

Rangel took on the section where the Prince, fleeing the city, meets the Firebird in the forest. "We're really happy to have Charles (Thompson)," a longtime Orts dancer who is leaving Tucson to move for San Diego. "He's done a lot of acting, and he's really great. Without that acting ability I'd have had to be more descriptive."

The princess sequence went to Rosen. "The movement is very coquettish, coy, but innocent," Rosen says. "It's very sweet."

The Youth Ensemble dancers, trained by Silliman, are part of her finale: They play statues springing to life.

Rangel says she was worried at first that the four different choreographic visions might collide. But that turned out not to be the case.

"The portions all have their own personality. The Firebird is more balletic, while Charles is very masculine. The princesses use modern movement but it's pleasing to the eye. The monsters are very high-energy and edgy. And the monsters appear in several sections, so Tommy's movement vocabulary is throughout."

Rosen agrees. "It was challenging to make sure it had a unifying vision," she says. "But it was a collaborative process, very exciting."

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