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Tucson's professional ballet company celebrates a quarter-century in a big way

John Gardner stood motionless in the dance studio.

He was watching, intently, as a dozen dancers leaped across the Ballet Tucson studio to the strains of one of Handel's "Concerti Grossi." Moving through a complicated pattern of intersecting circles, the dancers were trying their best not to crash into each other. They didn't always succeed.

Gardner's nascent choreography had a traffic-control problem.

So he did what he's long done best: He stepped out and started to dance. Once a mainstay in Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project and in American Ballet Theatre, Gardner is past his prime performing years. But suddenly, as he moved, you could see in his body all those seasons of experience at the pinnacle of American dance.

Now it was the young dancers' turn to stand motionless, agape at the ease and grace with which Gardner's practiced body did the steps. Effortlessly, he did a turn, a plié, a port de bras. He curved his spine and tilted his head back, and waved his arms in graceful arcs.

"When we start going like this too big," he called out, throwing his arms out into wild circles and curving his back way too far, "we get way behind."

The dancers nodded, and got back to work.

Gardner and his wife, Amanda McKerrow, for years a prima ballerina with ABT, are now in their sixth season as artistic associates with Ballet Tucson, the Old Pueblo's only professional ballet troupe.

"Both have deep, deep backgrounds," says Ballet Tucson founder and artistic director Mary Beth Cabana. "It's fantastic for us to have them here."

In between their other gigs around the country, McKerrow and Gardner regularly teach the dancers and refine their movements. They've set works by Antony Tudor, the great choreographer they worked with at ABT, on the local company. Occasionally, they've restaged parts of larger dances, Swan Lake here, Giselle there.

Now, for the first time, they're preparing a major piece of choreography of their own for Ballet Tucson. "The Gift" will premiere this weekend at the company's 25th anniversary gala and season opener.

"It's based on classical ballet, but with different ports de bras," Cabana says. "It has a contemporary flair based on classical vocabulary. It's very interesting and well-crafted."

Danced to Bach and Handel, the big group work for 11 women and five men features a prominent pas de deux by the company's star dancers, Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup, another married couple. And it dresses the dancers in cheerful apple green and cayenne red, suitably festive for the occasion.

The new ballet is the opener for a concert three dances strong; all three mark in some way the remarkable quarter-century survival of the company. The piece by Gardner and McKerrow is a tribute to the dancers who are part of Ballet Tucson's most recent incarnation as a pro troupe.

The second ballet, "Graduation Ball," is a classic that the company performs every few years. David Lichine of Ballets Russes choreographed the comical story ballet in 1940, and Cabana purchased the rights from his widow to perform it "in perpetuity." Danced to lively Strauss waltzes, the one-act ballet is set in 19th-century Vienna, where the girls at a private school welcome visiting boys from a military academy to a dance.

"It's full of mischief," Cabana says.

Megan Terry is the Pigtail Girl who falls for one of the boys, and new troupe member Emily Baker is the Mistress of Ceremonies. Two of the troupe's best comic actors, Deanna Doncsecz and César Rubio, play the naughtily amorous headmistress and headmaster.

The grand finale is another premiere, "Jubilee," choreographed by assistant artistic director Chieko Imada and Cabana specifically for the anniversary show.

"It's a celebratory piece that captures the whole journey," says Cabana. A metaphorical work in three parts, "Jubilee" charts the history of the company. It starts with young student dancers in plain practice clothes, moves on to the apprentices and trainees in long skirts and flowers, and culminates with all 17 of this year's professional dancers in sparkly gold and black bodies and tutus.

"It's classical, a good representation of the heart of what we do," Cabana says. The music is "Italian Symphony" by Mendelssohn, a favorite composer whose works Cabana has often used for her dances. Imada gets the lion's share of the choreography credit; Cabana worked on the children's parts and developed the concept and design.

Suitably for an anniversary dance, it features everyone in the 33-dancer troupe: its 17 regular company members, nine apprentices and seven trainees.

Quite a few of their faces will be new to the audience. Ballet Tucson is having what Cabana calls a "turnover year," with a number of departures and new hires.

Meredith Dulaney will be one of the most noticeable losses. In recent years, she has danced ever bigger parts, alternating such lead roles as The Nutcracker's Sugar Plum Fairy with star ballerina Johnson. Dulaney has moved to Seattle, Cabana says, for a new marriage and a new position in a contemporary ballet company. Aurora Frey, Jessica Galgiani, Samantha Chang also departed, and among the men, so did Cory Gram and Askar Alimbetov.

But Cabana is excited about her new dancers. Brittany Benington, formerly of Los Angeles Ballet, has worked in television and movies. Baker, the MC in "Graduation Ball," arrives from Inland Pacific Ballet, also in Southern California. At 19, "she's really a star," Cabana says. "She's going to do well."

Cabana hired four new men as well. Derek Lauer, younger brother of longtime company member Stuart Lauer, came from New York Theatre Ballet. (The brothers are natives of Flagstaff.) Benjamin Tucker arrived from Richmond Ballet, Daniel Salvador from City Ballet of San Diego, and Adrian Veloz from Ballet West in Salt Lake City.

The change in personnel makes way for some new opportunities for the dancers who remain, Cabana says. Megan Terry, for one, is likely to step into some of the bigger roles that Dulaney once danced.

Ballet Tucson has had to make cutbacks during the recession. Last year, two dancers from New York City Ballet were imported for the season-opening gala; this year, no outside stars were tapped. And Cabana has had to pare the number of weeks of paid work for the dancers.

She's been through tough times before. Her troupe started out as a school in the 1980s, and then branched out to become a professional company. The company used pickup dancers for five years, staging two big concerts a year at Centennial Hall and the Tucson Convention Center's Leo Rich Theatre.

"I didn't have the financial momentum to take it to the next step," she says, and she had to ratchet back down to a children's ensemble and school. That enterprise, Ballet Arts, won respect around the country for its training program. Finally, in 2004, Cabana put together the financing to do a full-scale company.

"My artistic ambition has been to have a professional company. I'm pretty proud to say we've had one for seven years."

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