Some 5,000 years ago, the ancient Irish built a mound tomb at Newgrange, in the Boyne Valley, a couple of hours north of today's Dublin.
From the outside, the giant structure looks like a green hill, a grass-covered hillock rising up from the broad valley. But it's manmade. Inside, long-ago craftsmen dug out a long corridor and burial chamber, and lined the walls with rock. These builders—or their religious leaders—clearly understood the skies: Every year on the morning of the winter solstice, the rays of the rising sun flood the passageway. On this day, and this day only, the ancient tomb fills with light.
"It's amazing that at the winter solstice, the light pierces through to the back wall," says Nanette Robinson, artistic director of ZUZI! Dance Company, who visited Ireland seven years ago. "It inspired me."
Newgrange, its magical light and the triple spirals carved onto its rocks moved her to create a suite of Irish dance works, two of which will be reprised in the company's 13th annual winter solstice show.
"This is a Best of ZUZI! Solstice Celebration," Robinson explains. "Some of the dances are from other years, plus we have some new choreography."
The company had a busy year, twice staging the ambitious full-evening work Crossing Boundaries, a border work with live music performed by Pablo Peregrina. ZUZI danced Crossing Boundaries both in the spring and the fall, leaving little time for the creation of a whole new solstice show.
"It's our opportunity to bring back old favorites," Robinson says cheerfully.
A highlight of the best-of show is a guest appearance by former company member Nathan Dryden, a gifted aerial dancer. Dryden will dance a trapeze solo. Singer and guitarist Peregrina will perform along with a number of the evening's pieces, which will include modern dances on the ground and high-flying works in the air.
Winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year, and ZUZI! has marked it each year by treating it as a festival of light. Lighted candles guide audience members out of the dark night and into the theater; onstage, the dancers perform work about light in the darkness—both literal and metaphorical.
Several of this year's pieces, including Robinson's Irish works, are specifically linked to the solstice, which this year falls on Tuesday, Dec. 21.
The first is "White Fields," a solo Robinson dances herself. That piece leads into "Enchantment," a work for six dancers, much of it performed above the stage on an aerial apparatus. Created by Mark Miceli, the contraption has "three ladders attached to two hoops," Robinson says. It partly represents the ladders found in rural Ireland that walkers use to climb over fences, and it partly evokes the triple spiral found carved into the rocks at Newgrange and other places in Ireland.
"It's a symbol of the triple goddess," Robinson notes.
The six dancers in "Enchantment"—Beth Braun, Alison Hart, Audrey Copeland, Scott Bird, Darrell Wilmore and Kali Lucey—dance to a suite of recorded music, including traditional Irish music performed by Solas.
New company member Ekidai Laurie, a native of Korea, dances her work "Tune." A combination of traditional Korean and modern dance, the piece is set to Korean drum music. It alludes to a Korean solstice tradition, in which "people prepare red beans to ward off evil spirits and for good luck," Robinson says.
Other new works on the program include Robinson's "Awareness," performed to a new song with lyrics by Robinson and Peregrina, and music by Peregrina. Six women in the annual ZUZI! community workshop, none of them professional dancers, developed the piece under Robinson's direction.
"It's about breaking patterns or cycles," says Robinson, who also will dance, "about how peer pressure causes us not to really listen to what our heart is saying."
ZUZI's Sara Anderson Stewart created the new dance "Kinetic Sculpture" for the seven dancers in the Apprentice Company. Inspired by the work of visual artist Igor Shwabe of Scottsdale, the piece is danced to recorded music by Frenchwoman Claire Diterzi. Company member Hart set an as-yet-unnamed work on the eight kids in the Many Limbs Youth Company.
Associate artistic director Braun showcases a trio of work. She first set her dance "Sisters of Grace" on her students at University/Rincon High School and then had the ZUZI dancers perform it in the O-T-O 25th anniversary concert last June. It had two inspirations, Robinson reports: First, Braun's students gave her the theme, and second, the unusual meter in the music ("The Diamond World" by Brian Resnick, recorded by the Ahn Trio) triggered intricate movements.
Braun dances it herself, along with Mirela Roza, Mandy Phillips, Hart, Stewart and Copeland. Sarah Miners and Vy Kieu alternate one role.
Braun also reprises the opener for the 2007 Dreams and Lullabies Solstice show, set to the Billy Joel tune "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)." The entire cast dances the piece. Additionally Braun will dance her own solo, "The Space Between Us," set to a song of the same name by her late husband Arthur Miscione, a musician and composer. The work was originally part of Journey, an evening-length collaboration by Braun and Miscione, and Braun danced it again in the solstice show in 2006.
"Another Yourself" is a Robinson trapeze duet from 2004. Frequent guest artist Greg Colburn dances it with Mechelle Flemming, a new company member from London whom Robinson calls "awesome, beautiful."
Originally commissioned by Tucsonan Will Mueller, the work charts the progress of a relationship, with the parties coming together, separating and flying apart. The recorded music is by Grove Garden; Flemming recites a poem by the writer Margaret Atwood, "Variations on the Word Sleep."
The final concert takes place on solstice night itself, Tuesday, Dec. 21, followed by a party in the Historic YWCA courtyard.
Catch a Kwanzaa celebration and last-minute 'Nutcracker' shows
The New York Times' Alastair Macaulay's whirlwind Nutcracker tour (see our Dec. 2 issue) has taken him to an R-rated Nutcracker in New York and an early American version in Washington, D.C. Out West, he's declared Salt Lake City's Nutcracker by Ballet West to be "one of the best productions I've ever seen."
Tucsonans who've been doing a Nutcracker marathon in the Old Pueblo still have a chance to see at least three more productions. Like the varied shows Macaulay has found across America, Tucson's remaining shows are all quite different.
The Great Russian Nutcracker offers a mix of dancers from a touring company of the Moscow Ballet and local kids. Macaulay found one dancer to praise in the show he caught, but disapprovingly noted a surprisingly low number of actual professionals onstage. This carpetbagging Nutcracker plays twice, at 4 and 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 21, at the Fox Tucson Theatre, 17 W. Congress St.; 547-3040; www.foxtucsontheatre.org; $31.50 to $71.30, plus fees; recorded music.
Ballet Tucson, the city's only professional ballet company, does a lovely Victorian version; the Snow Scene stands out for its intricate choreography. Two dozen pros and apprentices beautifully deliver classical ballet, aided by hordes of Tucson tykes and teens, at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 23; 3 p.m., Friday, Dec. 24; and 1 and 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 26, at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.; $25 to $52, with discounts, available at the TCC box office, 791-4101 or Ticketmaster; recorded music.
Tucson's newest Nutcracker, Baile de los Cascanueces, put on by Dancing in the Streets, takes the Mexican flavor of the studio's southside neighborhood. But the story is traditional, and guest artist Emily Rodgers adds polish to the work of the studio's kids and teens, at 1 and 6 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 26, at Pima College West Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road; $10 in advance; $12 at the door; 206-6986; the Civic Orchestra of Tucson plays live music.
Barbea Williams, Tucson's expert on African dance, provides an alternative to The Nutcracker. Co-sponsored by the South Park Art and Culture Center and Barbea Williams Performing Company, Celebrate Kwanzaa—Where We Come From is part carnival and part concert, with African dances and music interspersed with face-painting, crafts and African and Mexican games for kids, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 18, at Dunbar Cultural Center, 325 W. Second St.; 628-7785; free.