Ten days before Halloween, the dancers of Ballet Tucson were trying on their masks.
Elaborately painted and jeweled, the papier-mâché masks were for the new ballet "Masquerade." Mask-maker June Mullin made the eyeholes unusually large, the better for dancers to see where to glide into their glissades. But no one knew how well they would work.
The dancers had already rehearsed the movements, and now they were taking their first tentative steps with the masks strapped on.
After a split-second of hesitation, they began prancing around, the women in long skirts and the men in tights, ladies and lords at a masked ball. Cesar Rubio, who plays a joker, ran impishly between the graceful couples.
"They're fine!" assorted ballerinas called out, paying more attention to their demi-pliés than their disguises.
Assistant artistic director Chieko Imada, who co-choreographed the three-part work with artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana, was visibly relieved. She reverted to giving movement directions, running the dozen or more dancers through their paces as they danced to the big sounds of a Shostakovich piano concerto.
"Lots of gesture, please," she said.
The masked "Masquerade" will be the grand finale of the company's season opener on Halloween night. In keeping with the spooky holiday, the concert also conjures up the gypsy girl and the hunchback of Notre Dame in a new ballet called "Esmeralda." In the classic Giselle Act II, a troupe of ghostly brides swathed in white will take to the stage, dancing in the afterlife.
"Halloween night is well-planned," said Amanda McKerrow with a smile. The former American Ballet Theatre star is setting Giselle Act II on the dancers.
Besides the seasonal offerings, the gala Saturday-night concert also offers up a revered work by George Balanchine, danced by two guest stars from New York City Ballet, the company that Balanchine co-founded in 1948.
Maria Kowroski, who danced a Christopher Wheeldon piece for Ballet Tucson last year, returns with dance partner Charles Askegard, who will dance for the local company for the first time.
The two stars will perform the glittering "Diamonds" pas de deux from Balanchine's Jewels, the beloved full-length work from 1967. The piece is meant to evoke old Russia, and the music is by Balanchine's fellow Russian, Tchaikovsky.
"Maria told us she'd love to do it," Cabana said. "All she has to do is get permission from Peter Martins," the New York City Ballet's director. "It's fabulous as always to get a Balanchine, and I don't think the piece has been done before in Tucson.
"Maria is one of the best interpreters of Balanchine," Cabana added. "She's in the prime of her career."
Unfortunately, Kowroski and Askegard will dance only at the Saturday night gala. Two Sunday matinees will feature just the local dancers.
But the Giselle Act II being staged by McKerrow has its own star power. McKerrow danced the title role over 20 years at ABT, and she chose it for her farewell performance in 2005. (The Washington Post called her final Giselle "impeccably tender and lyrical.")
McKerrow took a moment to speak during a rehearsal break while Ballet Tucson's Giselle, Jenna Johnson, lay on her back on the floor with her long longs up on a wall. Johnson's husband, Daniel Precup, will play Albrecht, the young noble who jilts Giselle and then seeks her out in the afterlife.
"I did the second act in 1985 with Misha," McKerrow said, referring to her dance partner Mikhail Baryshnikov, "and the full length in 1987 with him. He held the ballet in very high regard. It was sacred to him, and it's close to my heart."
The ballet premiered in Paris in 1841 and remains a romantic favorite. Danced to a score by Adolphe Adam, the work was composed at a time when people were entranced by the supernatural. Some critics believe it owes some of its charged atmosphere to Victor Hugo, who published The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831.
The ballet "is a good one to mature with," McKerrow adds. "You can take whatever has happened to you and use it."
Three years ago, Ballet Tucson staged a theatrical version of the Hugo novel. Voiceover narration told his elaborate story of the gypsy woman who is saved by the hunchback in medieval Paris.
"Esmeralda," a brand-new work by Mark Schneider, formerly a company choreographer, is the "opposite of what we did before," Cabana said.
"That was theater. This is dance," she explained.
A cast of 50, including kids from the Ballet Arts school, create the mobs in the square in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Sets conjure up the cathedral, its bell tower and its famous stained-glass rose window. Schneider put together a musical collage of orchestral and piano pieces by Rachmaninoff for the 35-minute piece.
The concert closes with "Masquerade." Providing a counterpoint to the deathly whites and grays of the earlier pieces, the big new work dresses 22 dancers in vibrant reds, pinks and yellows: sparkly peplum bodices and net skirts for the women, frilly shirts and quilted vests for the men. (Lynn Lewis gets costume credit for "Masquerade," Madelene Maxwell for Giselle and "Esmeralda.")
The costumes are essential to the theme of the dance. The dancers "slowly unmask, take off some costumes (and) become less encumbered," Cabana said. "They gradually deconstruct emotionally, baring their soul."
Cabana is delighted to be starting up the new season, but the economy has taken its toll on the troupe's operations. The annual Roots of Choreography (ROCS) show has been eliminated, reducing the usual number of concerts from five to four. The cash-strapped UA is now using Centennial Hall for mammoth classes and can't spare the time to rent the theater to Ballet Tucson for its Nutcracker, which now will have to go to the TCC Music Hall.
The company had to lay off its managing executive director, Jeffrey Graham Hughes, to cut costs, though he will still teach and compose some dances.
"We had to make some hard decisions to keep the company going," Cabana said.
On the plus side, she was able to hire a few new dancers: Askar Alimbetov, a native of Kazakhstan who recently danced with San Diego Ballet, and Jessica Galgiani, a Tucsonan who trained with Ballet Arts and danced with Louisville Ballet. Three apprentices were added, and several others moved up to company ranks.
"They're all happy to be working," Cabana said. "It's a good group. Hopefully it will all work out."