Ashley Bowman and Claire Hancock spent much of May and June herding nearly four-dozen performing artists through China.
Their Art.if.Act Dance Project, which kicks off the fall dance season in Tucson this weekend, had been invited to tour 14 Chinese cities. Forty dancers (including the two artistic directors) and four musicians performed in their Great American Dance Tour, an evening-length concert depicting the history of American popular dance.
"Imagine 44 Americans descending on a town," Bowman says. "The audiences loved it. After the encore in one show, a child screamed out in English: 'Please, one more!'"
But the tour was also grueling. In one stretch, the pickup troupe played five cities in as many days.
"It was great," Bowman says, "but it was a lot of work."
It's no surprise that she and Hancock decided to pare down for this weekend's concert at the UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre. Fairy Tales Three will feature just four dancers, two mimes and four musicians.
"We're going from 40 dancers to six," Bowman says.
But the program is as ambitious as always for this young troupe, now starting its third season. The multimedia modern dance concert features live music from a selection of Czech composers, played by the Kingfisher String Quartet, as well as video projections and spoken-word narration.
Aided and abetted by this wealth of genres, the all-new choreography tells three separate tales: "The Riddle" and "Rumpelstiltskin," both collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century, and "Rip Van Winkle," written in 1819 by Washington Irving.
"It's more fun to show three shorter stories," Bowman says, instead of the one long tale normally told in an evening-length ballet. The fairy tales are each 20 to 25 minutes long, "perfect for families and children," and for the Grimm works, the dancers are dressed in elaborate storybook costumes.
ADP, as the troupe is known, is committed to beginning each season with a concert inspired by literature, Bowman explains.
"Last year, we did Edgar Allan Poe. This year, we thought, 'Let's do fairy tales.' But out of the thousands out there, which do you choose?"
The artistic directors considered and then rejected "The Princess and the Pea." It's often danced by children's ballet studios, Bowman notes, and its comical tone didn't fit the mood they were looking for.
Enter "The Riddle," one of the darkest of the traditional tales collected by the Brothers Grimm.
"It's the unknown one," Bowman says. It has an array of iconic fairy tale characters: a prince, a maiden and a stepmother who's a witch. The prince seeks shelter at the young woman's house in a forest, only to have the witch poison his horse. A raven dines on the equine cadaver, and when the bird dies, its corpse is cooked up into a stew that kills a dozen people.
Even so, Bowman notes, "Evil dies, and love prevails."
Dancer Marquez Johnson plays the prince. Hancock is the maiden; Bowman is the witch. Local mimes Rick Wamer and Grant Bashore, who was seen in last year's "The Fall of the House of Usher," bring their subtle movements to the work. Wamer is the Raven, and Bashore is the prince's servant.
"We collectively created the piece," Bowman says, and all five performers get credit for the choreography.
Hancock's film projections suggest the forest, the cottage, a tavern. They're like the painted backdrops of ballet, "only you can do more," Bowman says.
In "Rip Van Winkle," her film backdrop chronicles Rip's transition from youth to old age. Hancock also choreographed the piece. Moving away from narrative and turning to abstraction, she's put the dancers in sleek leotards instead of period costumes.
Wamer portrays Van Winkle only at the beginning and the end. In between, while he sleeps, Marquez dances Progress; Hancock is Conflict; and Bowman plays Time. The moral is that anyone can sleep a life away.
"The dance is very modern and very hard," Bowman says.
The final piece, "Rumpelstiltskin," returns to fairy-tale mode. Choreographer Bowman edited the story, changing the miller's daughter to a servant girl (Hancock), and Rumpelstiltskin (Wamer) to a man in love. But the problem remains: The young woman must spin a roomful of straw into gold for the queen (played by Bashore in a comical turn) in order to win the prince (Cory Gram) in marriage. Only Rumpelstiltskin can help—but he strikes a hellish bargain.
The dancing tends toward the lyrical, though, and the young woman and the prince dance a "beautiful pas de deux," Bowman says.
A voiceover narration, recorded by actor David Alexander Johnston, moves the stories along.
Art.if.Fact is committed to having live music at every concert, so much so that they insisted to their Chinese hosts that they couldn't dance without it. This concert marks the first time the Kingfisher Quartet has played as a group for the company, though individual musicians have performed with the troupe in the past.
All the Kingfisher musicians—violinists Ben Nisbet and Ellen Chamberlain, cellist Anne Gratz and violist Emma Noël Votapek—are in the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. They play the work of three different Czech composers, one for each story: Leos Janáek for "The Riddle," Vítzslav Novák for "Rip Van Winkle" and Bedich Smetana for "Rumpelstiltskin."
The music was suggested by Nisbet, the troupe's musical director and Bowman's husband.
"It was a coincidence to use only Czech composers," Bowman says. "They're each very different pieces, but they're all perfect for the narrative."
The length of the musical pieces dictate the length of the dances, "and the movements in the music give the choreography a structure."
Even in these hard times, ADP is enthusiastic about its future. The troupe recently became an official nonprofit, and the artistic directors have lined up a full season. Though nothing is definite yet, they're in preliminary discussions about a possible reprise of the China jaunt.
"As long as we can create pieces and pay people," Bowman says, "we'll keep going."