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Magical Environment 

ZUZI! looks to gardens for 'Solstice' inspiration

Every summer, when the days are long and the light is bright, ZUZI! artistic director Nanette Robinson takes "two to three weeks off and plants a seed for Solstice," the December show that celebrates light in the darkness.

This year, Robinson planted the seed literally. She went to the Berkshires, the rolling green hills of western Massachusetts, and stayed with friends at an off-the-grid farm an hour from Amherst.

"They created a community up on a hill. It's a huge garlic farm, with plant gardens, and I spent a lot of time gardening," she says. She also made a point of visiting multiple gardens--vegetable, herb and flower. "There are so many different types."

So Robinson started contemplating the metaphorical possibilities of gardens. "When you go into a garden, you sit; you listen; you look; and you pause." It struck her as a perfect theme for the annual Solstice show. Taking a page from Voltaire's Candide, choreographers could make dances that asked, "What could you cultivate in your garden of life?"

The dances, germinating through the fall, will debut this weekend in Garden of Grace: 11th Annual Solstice Performance. The three-night run will end on Sunday, Dec. 21, the actual solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. Nearly all of the eight main dances, plus the short full-company opening and closing pieces, touch on the gardening theme--the garden as life cycle, the garden as refuge, the garden as joy. Dancers fly through the air on ropes, or silks, or trapezes, conjuring up vines and stems and stars.

Even the lobby of the Historic YWCA will be transformed into a garden. A benefit auction will offer up potted gardens donated by local nurseries; audience members arriving on the dark night will find the space adorned with trellises and plants.

"We like to create a magical environment when people walk in," Robinson said. In addition, Larry Hanelin will exhibit his photos of ZUZI! dancers. No live music will accompany the dances this year, but guitarist Hoshin Gupta and singer Sally Withers will perform pre-concert.

The opening dance, choreographed by Karyn Reim to a joyful Brahms sextet, has the entire Solstice cast, two dozen strong, mimicking the gestures of Greek statues in a formal garden. The closer, also by Reim, is danced to a piece by Secret Garden.

Robinson's "Red Stemmed Dogwood" was inspired by a photo she found of a winter garden: "The ivy was snowed on, and the red-stemmed dogwood was bursting out of the weed." She was moved by the "energy of the seed bursting through the earth, even in winter, in darkness." Monica Weinheimer dances the solo on the floor and in the air on silks hanging from the fly. A painted backdrop designed by stage manager Katrina Steib and crafted by company members depicts a garden in full bloom.

Robinson reworked a 4-year-old piece, "Refuge in the Garden of Lingering." Its aerial choreography has dancers cavorting on triangle frames strung up on four ropes. Danced by a dozen dancers, who collaborated on the movement, the piece starts with people hanging upside down, like vines.

"It's about returning to the self when all is in disarray," Robinson said. "It's about grace"--another theme of the show--"and the simplicity of the true self."

The seven Many Limbs youth dancers begin their piece, "Think of Kindness," choreographed by Alison Hart and Robinson, with flower pots in their hands. The young dancers remind Robinson of the Graces in Greek mythology, she said. "They skip; they reach up; they're joyful."

Deviating from the theme a bit, associate artistic director Beth Braun based a work on Van Gogh's painting "Starry Night." Van Gogh often painted flowers, though, and this painting, of brilliant yellow stars shooting through midnight blue, is a kind of sky garden. A three-part work for 10 dancers, including five Many Limbers, "Everything" is about the juxtaposition of beauty and sorrow in art.

In an e-mail message, Braun wrote that she was thinking "about Vincent Van Gogh (and other artists), and how he created such amazingly beautiful work, but yet he was so tormented inside." She's set the work to multiple pieces of music, including Mark O'Connor's "Butterfly's Day Out," played by O'Connor and Yo-Yo Ma. Steib re-created "Starry Night" as a painted wood backdrop.

Braun and Robinson collaborated on "Sage," a quartet for two women, Audrey Copeland and Kali Lucey, and two men, Scott Bird and Connor Cobbledick. The music is by the Ahn Trio, and the movement is "very modern dance," performed on the floor and on two trapezes. "It's movement we crafted a few years ago," Robinson said, "and now we added two aerial sections."

New company member Sara Anderson, who danced with ZUZI! as a teen while she was at Tucson High, has returned to town after studying at Arizona State University. She choreographed "The Road Taken" for the troupe's five apprentices. Hart dances her own solo, "Some Sort of Contradiction."

Typically, ZUZI! runs a community piece, with nonprofessional dancers helping develop movement in workshops. Atypically, this time, only two people persisted in the sessions, a couple: Paul and Hana Lang. "They wanted to dance with each other," Robinson said, so she and Braun helped them create "Resurgence." All four dance it in the show, and the Langs provide narration.

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