For the opening of Ballet Tucson's 30th anniversary season, artistic director Mary Beth Cabana had a surprising thought: steampunk.
"It's as if the past happened in the future," Cabana says of the Steampunk worldview. "It's a futuristic view of Victorian times."
It also involves "steam-powered stuff before electricity." Not to mention goggles and corsets and nail-studded bracelets.
None of which automatically come to mind when you think of ballet. But Cabana decided that a brand-new steampunk dance would be the perfect vehicle for celebrating the troupe's big anniversary.
"I thought the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would translate really well into a ballet," Cabana says. "And I thought it would spark the interest of our younger viewers as well."
This weekend, "Jekyll & Hyde," a steampunk dance version of Robert Louis Stevenson's dark novel about good and evil, will premiere at the Temple of Music and Art. The program also includes a new "Carmina Burana" and reprise of 2009's "Masquerade."
"We had a field day with the costumes for 'Jekyll & Hyde,'" Cabana says merrily. "They're on the dark side, brown, tan, deep burgundy, and Victorian-inspired. We have hats, capes, walking sticks, metal wrist cuffs. We have all kinds of goggles. It sounds crazy but it works."
Its steampunk backdrop conjures up foggy London in the Victorian age, with images of Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and even an airship slipping through the mist.
A cast of 50 dancers, led by the company's 32 professionals, including apprentices and trainees, bring the shivery tale to life, dancing to a score that's a collage of music from multiple eras.
Isaiah Sumler, the troupe's sensational principal male dancer, takes on the luscious role of Mr. Hyde, the evil alter ago of Dr. Jekyll. Sumler joined the company last season and "he's dancing really well," Cabana says.
And for this story of opposites, two dancers, Mauricio Vergara and Connolly Strombeck , share the part of the decent doctor who's psychologically split in two.
Prima ballerina Jenna Johnson and Taylor Johnson alternate Millicent, Dr. Jekyll's fiancée, and Megan Steffens and Deanna Doncsecz switch off on Ivy, a burlesque dancer. And while Cabana dreamed up the steampunk "Jekyll & Hyde" and helped conceive the costumes, assistant artistic director Chieko Imada created most of the choreography for the 45-minute piece.
"Jekyll & Hyde" has movements that are partly contemporary, partly classical. The other premiere, a new "Carmina Burana" choreographed by the company's Daniel Precup dives into full-fledge contemporary. Its choreography, Cabana says, is "ambitious, elaborate and stark."
Set to the beloved 1930s classical cantata by Karl Orff, "Carmina Burana" is composed of 24 songs whose lyrics come from 12th and 13th century monastic poems, many of them surprisingly ribald. The entire company dances the 50-minute work, dressed in spare unitards, the stark look interrupted only by the occasional red skirt or monk's robe. Jenna Johnson and Sumler dance the leads.
Precup, the troupe's former principal male dancer, has proved an able choreographer in previous outings, pushing ballet to sleeker and more contemporary gestures. In this new work he "is using dancers to create living sculptural effects," Cabana says.
In between the two dark premieres is the bright "Masquerade," a 2009 work by Imada and Cabana. A pure ballet with classical movements, the large group piece conjures up a masked ball at court. The women are in traditional ballet dresses in brilliant red and yellow and the men wear frilly shirts and tights. Dancing to a piano concerto by Shostakovich, all of them hide their faces behind elaborate masks.
During ghostly October and November, the company typically turns to the dark arts; past seasonal ballets have included "Dracula" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The masks of "Masquerade" link to Halloween, and the scary "Jekyll &Hyde" easily fits into the spooky agenda.
"It's going to be fun," Cabana says.