A river ran through Tucson, once.
The Santa Cruz flowed north right through town. Tall cottonwoods grew on its banks, and ducks splashed in its waters.
For a couple of generations now, the riverbed has been dry most of the time. The trees are dead, and the wildlife has vanished.
Choreographer Kimi Eisele laments the loss of the river in "Santa Cruz River Suite," a modern dance that's a centerpiece of the NEW ARTiculations Watershed concert this weekend at Pima Community College.
"It's a suite about the Santa Cruz River and its history and its historic flow," says Eisele, a writer-dancer-choreographer who also has a master's degree in geography. The river dried up after "we figured out ways to pump and drill. The water table dropped."
Her 20-minute work for a dozen dancers is divided into four parts, each one chronicling a chapter in the river's life and death. It begins with the healthy water flow, then segues into what Eisele calls the "industrial takeover."
Guest dancer Greg Colburn performs the third section, a solo about the disappearance of the Santa Cruz. A final section conjures up "rain, runoff and flash floods," Eisele says.
Eisele's piece is one of the concert's five water dances, all of them excerpts from FLOW, NEW ART's long-term dance project about water. Ranging from tragic to comic, the other four water works are shorter than Eisele's and feature, among other things, humorous synchronized swimmers and dancers slipping and sliding in real water onstage.
The concert also showcases dry-dock choreography by three guest artists. Veteran Tucson dancer Thom Lewis created a solo looking at stereotypes about male dancers; he dances it to music by Tom Waits. Gayl Zhao, new owner of the DanceLoft, where the company is based, choreographed the freewheeling "Posin'," challenging the modern dancers to step out with the Charleston and the Lindy hop.
Charlotte Adams, a dance professor at the University of Iowa, contributes the group work "Conspiracies of the Body." One of only two works on the program that's not a premiere, it's set to vaudeville music. The quartet is "about how women deal with our bodies," says Katie Rutterer, who co-directs the company with Eisele. "We want them pretty, but they do great things."
NEW ART has made a name for itself by doing unconventional projects with non-dancers in the community, and staging them in out-of-the-way venues. The troupe has danced in a parking garage, doing pieces that looked at public space downtown, and performed works on the politics of food outdoors at the Tucson Botanical Gardens and at the Tucson Community Food Bank.
Now comes FLOW, a two-year community project zeroing in on the problem of water supply in a desert city.
"Like our other community things, we wanted to do something important for the community and engage a different audience," Rutterer says. "Kimi had been thinking about a water piece for a while."
Since September, the dancers have been creating movement inspired by water, working with kids in afterschool programs and adults in community centers. In the summer of 2012, if all goes well, the pro dancers and some of the non-pros will dance in the sandy river bottom of the Santa Cruz.
The sampling of water works in Watershed is a first glimpse of the full FLOW.
Rutterer's "If There Is No Water" is a "burlesque," she says, with synchronized swimmers in old-fashioned swim dresses and swim caps. "It's about a day at the beach when the water dries up. It's lighthearted, but turns serious" when the dehydrated would-be swimmers stagger across the dry beach.
Company members Polly Deason, Erika Farkvam, Corinne Hobson, Emily Runyeon and Megan Shaffer play the dancing swimmers. The "silly" music is by the Swingle Sisters, an a cappella group that sings bah-bahs to Bach.
Shaffer originally intended to splash paint on the dancers in her "Bodies of Water," Rutterer says, but "it was a logistical problem. She went with water instead." Six dancers in white cavort in wet clothes and wet hair on a wet stage.
Farkvam's "Water Is Taught by Thirst," inspired by a line from Emily Dickinson, looks at "literal and figurative ideas of thirst," Eisele says. Tammy Rosen created "Bottled," a playful dance for eight that "pokes fun at the waste created by our addiction to bottled water," Eisele says. The dancers are dressed as fairies who struggle to pick their way through mounds of discarded plastic bottles.
Rosen also revives "Wings," a duet now nearly 10 years old, and dances it with LeighAnn Rangel Sotomayor, who co-founded NEW ART with her in 1997.