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'Rats' and Rhythm

Four male dancers are seated on bar benches on a dark stage at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre waiting for the music to begin. The sound technician shouts that they look like cool cats, dressed in their black tuxedos; they respond back, almost in unison: "It's cool rats!"

The quartet is performing a jazz piece called "Rats!" inspired by the demeanor and music of the Rat Pack--Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop.

The dance was choreographed by UA School of Dance professor Douglas Nielsen and is premiering at the school's Premium Blend concert, taking place Feb. 20 through March 1. The showcase will feature UA student dancers performing jazz, tap and ballet, with the centerpiece being Swan Lake Act II.

Throughout "Rats!" the four dancers flip over each others' backs, dance on stools and perform sign language to Martin's "When You're Smiling."

"With this, I thought I just wanted four men in tuxedos just dancing their feet off," Nielsen says with a laugh while sitting outside of the theater.

Nielsen says he went to Las Vegas to research his piece and was inspired by the Rat Pack's music. "They (Rat Pack) always flirted with the audience. They just looked like they were having a ball," he says.

Throughout three songs, the "Rats!" dancers maintain a high energy; the sit-down sign-language portion was intended to be a breather, according to Nielsen.

"It's tiring, but it's been expected of us since day one," says "Rats!" dancer Nicholas Torres.

Adds dancer Jordan Bradfield: "(Nielsen's) stuff is very free-moving, and it's a character piece."

Nielsen calls his student dancers phenomenal. "They just dance like it's their last dance. They're pre-professionals. I don't even call them students," he says.

The dancers are all friends who have known each other since they began college; three of them will be graduating in May. "It's like four friends hanging out," says dancer Joshua Blake Carter.

"Rats!" is not the only premiere taking place during Premium Blend; the concert will also feature the debut of the tap performance "Rhythm Schism," choreographed by Michael Williams. The piece starts with 15 green-sock-wearing tap dancers sticking their feet out below a black curtain, kicking and tapping to the beat of a hip-hop score with beat-box vocals.

"We played around with this curtain idea; we thought this was a novel way to begin," says Williams.

Williams danced with the Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago company in the '80s, and started the jazz component at the UA School of Dance. Along with assistant choreographer and UA sophomore Lauren Truby, Williams began to brainstorm the piece in November; he eventually melded three different tracks together to get the sound he had been searching for.

"I decided last spring I was going to do something that was a fusion of hip hop and tap," says Williams. "I started with the idea of Justin Timberlake without his voice, just his instrumental tracks."

Besides bright green socks, "Rhythm Schism" dancers also sport blue jeans, purple hoodies and 5-gallon water jugs (empty, of course). "(The song) kept saying, 'water, water, water,'" explains Williams. "That 5-gallon water bottle takes a lot of work." The dancers lift and bang the hollow jugs before throwing them to partners around the stage.

Williams and Truby both give credit to the troupe of dancers for pulling off the fusion. "I'm real pleased with the hip-hop style melded with tap," says Williams.

Adds Truby, "I think the piece is very successful, to take this style of tap and bring it to a theatrical setting. ... We should be proud."

Premium Blend performances take place at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, Feb. 20 and 21; Thursday, Feb. 26; and Saturday, Feb. 28. Matinees take place at 1:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 21 and 22, and Feb. 28 and March 1. Some performances are close to selling out. General admission is $23; tickets for UA employees, military and seniors are $21; student tickets are $10. For tickets or more information, call 621-1162, or visit the School of Dance Web site.

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