Danielle Jones grabs a bar, hoists herself up and begins to spin. Before long, she's upside down, moving through the air. On the other trapezes, Aja Knaub, Sukie Keita and Jamie Carson are also pirouetting in space.
"Good! Beautiful! That was it!" calls out choreographer Annie Bunker, artistic director of O-T-O Dance.
But the finale is yet to come. After 10 minutes of dancing, Knaub and Carson stay on their trapezes, but Jones and Keita float down to the floor and walk solemnly away. As they move to the rear of the studio, in a stately march to the strains of flute music by R. Carlos Nakai and Amo Chip Dabney, they make a lovely gesture with their hands.
Each woman pushes her joined palms high up above her face, then tilts them to one side. It's as though they're waving goodbye, and in fact, the piece they're dancing, "Beckoned," is about the departure of loved ones.
"The music is about being called away someplace else," Bunker says. "The dance ends with two people leaving, walking away. And two are left behind, circling on the traps."
A new work that will debut at the O-T-O Short Stories concert this weekend, "Beckoned" had its genesis in the recent deaths of several members of the Tucson arts community. Bunker tallies them up: Patti Lopez, longtime collaborator with O-T-O; musician Arthur Miscione, husband of dancer/choreographer Beth Braun, formerly of O-T-O; and Albert Soto, actor and Tucson Pima Arts Council administrator. All died within the last year, she notes, as did a good friend in Bunker's new home of Hawaii.
"We've had a lot of departures in the last year," she says.
"Beckoned" is just one of five premieres on the concert program, which features eight dances by six different choreographers, including local favorite Thom Lewis. The concert will also serve up some live music, by a quartet of musicians playing the African kalimba; a videoscape of flying bats shot by Chuck Koesters; and plenty of aerial dancing. Normally, O-T-O concerts include at least one long work, but this time, all the pieces end within about 10 minutes, hence the concert title.
"It just worked out that way," Bunker says, noting that this has been a busy year for the troupe. O-T-O had to vacate its longtime Ortspace in the Warehouse District early in the summer and move to studios with tighter space in Art Fare downtown. Bunker has also spent many months teaching in Hawaii, where she and her husband, Koesters, the troupe's managing director and composer, have bought a house.
The brand-new "Skyward" is another Bunker tribute to Lopez, whom the choreographer counted among her closest friends. A year and a half ago, Lopez and her husband brought Bunker and Koesters to a cave near Arivaca where Mexican free-tail bats live half the year. One evening, the group watched as thousands of the tiny bats flitted out of the cave opening.
"They kept coming and coming," Bunkers remembers, "whirling, coming out en masse."
Koesters videotaped their flight, and those moving images became the backdrop for the new dance, for which he also composed music. Bunker, Julia Miller and Wendy Miller dance the part of the bats.
"It's more a performance-art piece than dancing," Bunker says. "The video is about the bats flying away, and the dance is about them clustering in the cave. There's a lot of sculptural shaping."
But not all of Bunker's pieces are mementos mori. "Duello" is a purely comic romp that she choreographed for Jones and Keita.
"Both are very elegant dancers," she says. "Both have direct personalities that I appreciate very much, and they spar with each other." So Bunker concocted a comical duel, in which the women confront each other to the strident sounds of a Piazolla tango.
"Trailings," another new Bunker dance, has a trio of inspirations: fireflies, fireworks and the northern lights. In Ecuador, where O-T-O performed last March, Bunker and Koesters went out walking one night in a remote village.
"Fireflies were everywhere. They have patterns traced against the sky. That took me back to summers in Connecticut, to the field behind our house, and a memory of my mother and father taking us out as small children to watch the fireflies."
Two dancers will drape glow lights over their black leotards. Knaub will move through the air on a trapeze. On the floor, Carson will dance, lit not only by the glow sticks but by the lighted Maori poi balls she'll spin over her body, trailing the light against the black.
Two other O-T-O dancers, Jones and Miller, turned choreographer for "Circles," another of the premieres. Inspired by children's hula-hoop games, the duet, which the two women dance themselves, is "playful and lyrical," Bunker says. It's also danced to live music, the tinkly sounds of the kalimba, the African finger piano. Mark Holdaway performs his original score live, joined by musicians Jordan McGary, James Gates and Scott Miller.
Lewis dances "Frog and Opportunity," an extract from his "Precipice," a larger work that debuted at the FUNHOUSE movement theater concert last spring. His partner in the duet is Renee Blakeley.
"The man is the ugly frog, and the woman is the pretty princess," Bunker says, "but there's a surprise ending."
Celebrating O-T-O's 23rd season, Short Stories also brings back some works from the earliest years of the company, formerly known at Orts Theatre of Dance. "Shaman Call" is from the very first Orts concert, in 1983. A solo to Balinese gamelan music, it was composed by Jeri McAndrew, now of Bisbee. Chieko Imada, who now works with Ballet Tucson, danced it all those years ago, and it has not been much performed since.
"It takes a particular type of dancer," Bunker says, "and I realized Sukie (Keita) could do it well. Jeri came up and worked with her. It's about a shaman changing into a bird."
The other near-historic piece, "Fabrications," from 1984, is also about transformation, an apt theme for this transition year for O-T-O.
"A parachute changes into various characters, kind of like Alice in Wonderland," Bunker says.
An audience favorite that O-T-O often dances on tour, it's the work of Beckah Voigt, an old college friend of Bunker's. Bunker danced the solo herself in 1984, and she dances it still.
"I'll dance it," she says. "My body knows it so well."