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Fewer Steps 

Some local dance companies cut back due to the recession, while others—including a new group—press on

Last fall by this time, FUNHOUSE movement theater had already staged its annual outdoor concert in the cool autumn air at Reid Park.

NEW ARTiculations was dancing on the streets downtown, in preparation for a major November show at the Pennington Street Parking Garage, and Thom Lewis Dance was looking ahead to a spring concert.

This year, the fall dance card is almost—but not quite—blank.

"This is a low period in modern dance in town," says Thom Lewis. Hit by the bad economy, modern-dance troupes are scaling back. FUNHOUSE canceled plans for a 10th anniversary fall show in the park, and as of yet, neither NEW ART nor Lewis Dance has any concerts nailed down.

"It's a hard year all around," agrees Lee Anne Hartley, artistic director of FUNHOUSE.

Lewis is still hoping to put on a show in the new year, but he doesn't know if he'll be able to find the money. The public and corporate grants that small companies depend on have nearly dried up. With the state budget in crisis mode, public funding for the arts has been cut to the bone.

"The first words we got from TPAC (Tucson Pima Arts Council) and the Arizona Commission on the Arts were 'bad news,'" Lewis says.

NEW ART got just $2,500 in project money from TPAC, reports artistic director Katie Rutterer, and $1,000 in general operating support from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. The $1,000 is just about enough to keep the troupe going, but the $2,500 is not nearly enough to put on a big project like last year's weeks-long Invisible Cities street-dance collaboration with Kore Press.

"We'll be doing smaller shows in nontraditional venues, in galleries, parks and parking garages," Rutterer says, "but it looks like we won't do anything until after the first of the year."

However, there is one company, the brand-new Art.if.Act, that is planning a big splash. Developed by two UA master's grads with the muscle of the UA School of Dance behind them, Art.if.Act is staging its first professional show next week. (See below.)

And ZUZI! Dance Company, snug in its own theater, is staging a No Frills concert next week. It's attracting higher-caliber choreographers in need of a dance outlet: Rutterer is contributing a piece, and so is Hartley.

Following suit, Lewis will put a new dance of his in Taiko Plus!, Odaiko Sonora's drumming concert on Nov. 20 and 22 at UA Stevie Eller. He'll have his modern performers dancing to the taiko drums, in a "contemporized" Japanese folk dance. Batucaxé and Theatrical Mime Theatre will also participate.

"Karen and Rome are very community-minded," he notes, speaking of Odaiko artistic directors Karen Falkenstrom and Rome Hamner. "What we are getting from the funding agencies is, 'There's so little money, we are advising you to collaborate.'"

O-T-O Dance, now going into its 25th season, hasn't had a public concert in Tucson since June 2008. Artistic director Annie Bunker now teaches modern and aerial dance at the University of Hawaii and at Hawaii Community College, but she's made an effort to keep an O-T-O presence in Tucson.

She had scheduled a June show this year at Stevie Eller, but when Rogue Theatre snapped up the old YWCA gymnasium for a new theater, O-T-O lost its rehearsal space.

"We had to cancel our summer school and our summer concert," says Bunker. She's looking for new space now and hopes to stage an anniversary concert in June 2010.

During this fallow period, the artistic directors are trying to stay positive. Lewis is concentrating on his work as a dance teacher in the Tucson Unified School District's acclaimed Opening Minds Through the Arts integrative-arts program.

"Education is in trouble, especially in a state like Arizona," he says. In this job, "you're in a position to change arts education and education."

Hartley is keeping up FUNHOUSE's residencies in local schools, and she's mentally framing the Year Without Concerts as an invigorating sabbatical. Rutterer sees artistic opportunity in her company's switch to small, unexpected venues.

"It's kind of fun not to stick to the theater," she says. "I'm not looking at it as a downside."

For their master's concert last spring at the UA School of Dance, Ashley Bowman and Claire Hancock produced a collaborative show that "integrated film, live music and dance," Bowman says.

They were so pleased with it that they decided to form a pro troupe, Art.if.Act Dance Project, dedicated to the proposition that all dance should be performed to live music. It makes its debut next week.

More of a "project" than a company, Art.if.Act takes its name from the idea that "we can't have dance unless we create it"—or that we have art only if we act to make it, Bowman explains.

And in a difficult arts climate, "We're determined to create something new with dance and music," Bowman says. "There are so many talented people."

Bowman and Hancock both danced professionally before picking up their MFAs at the UA, Bowman with Ohio Ballet and Hancock with ODC/San Francisco and River North Chicago Dance Company. Hancock has another master's from the Laban Centre in London.

They have close connections among local musicians: Bowman's husband, Ben Nisbet, is a violinist who is assistant concertmaster with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. He and Carla Ecker, TSO associate concertmaster, serve as Art.if.Act co-musical directors. Both will play live in the show, along with several other musicians.

"We have about 15 dancers," all of them either alumni or current students at the UA, Bowman says. "Some of them have danced professionally, but there are no jobs now, so we're just scooping them up."

Their UA connections have also provided some of the choreography. (Hancock is the daughter of Jory Hancock, head of the School of Dance and interim dean of the College of Fine Arts, and dance professor Melissa Lowe.) For instance, two works by David Berkey, a late UA professor, are on the program.

A respected modern choreographer who taught many years at the University of Iowa before dying in 2004 after only one year at the UA, Berkey bequeathed his repertory to Hancock, who had danced for him.

She'll perform his duet "Within the Bending of an Arm" with undergrad Wes Krukow. She has set his final work, "Blind Date," on grad students Rebekah Belanger and Gregg Hurley; freshman Shaun Repetto takes the part of the waiter. Berkey "worked on it until the week before his death," Hancock says.

Other works are a balletic piece by dance prof James Clouser and a tango by UA dance tech director John Dahlstrand. Rick Wamer (another UA grad student) and Lorie Heald of Theatrical Mime Theatre perform as guest artists.

Bowman and Hancock handle the rest of the choreography, which includes Bowman's "Two Violins," a "contemporary piece with a lot of folk" set to Bartók. The two women collaborated on "This Is His Imagination," danced to a poem recited live.

The show also includes their short film, All Men Are Mortal, shot in Tucson's Barrio Historico, with Bowman doing the filming and Hancock the editing.

"We shot on Convent Street," Bowman says. "It's about Day of the Dead and lingering souls. There is dance in it."

The artistic directors have kept the budget for the show below $7,000, raising the money from private donors, including one "angel" who contributed $2,000. The new company is paying for the use of the theater, and some of the proceeds will benefit UA Dance. They're also paying each of the musicians.

But the dancers will perform for free—a situation they hope to rectify by the second scheduled concert in March, a benefit for the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation. They're hoping their three-genre shows—dance, music and film—will attract triple the audiences and put them on a sound financial footing.

"We're trying to do something different," Bowman says, "something new."

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