At the beginning of Dance in the Red, this weekend's concert by Art.if.Act—a benefit for the Southern Arizona AIDS Foundation—no fewer than 15 dancers will march into Stevie Eller Dance Theatre carrying red ribbons, a symbol of the fight against the disease.
"The whole concert begins with a ribbon procession," says troupe choreographer and co-director Ashley Bowman, "and the pit rises with seven musicians on it. All of them shout a phrase, and the light goes out."
The dramatic opening leads into "To Boston for Sex," a Bowman piece danced to an original composition by company composer Vincent Calianno. The subtext to the dance is "you need to protect yourself," Bowman says. "The whole show is about AIDS awareness."
Dance in the Red is the second outing for the young Tucson company, which relies on dancers who are either current students or alumni of the UA School of Dance. Bowman and her co-artistic director, Claire Hancock, both have master's degrees in dance from the UA; Hancock has a UA bachelor's as well.
A highlight of the debut show last October was the live music, and the pair has pledged to enlist real musicians for the shows whenever possible. "To Boston for Sex," for instance, has a full corps of players, on saxophone, bass, cello, percussion, violin and piano. The reasons are both artistic and practical, Bowman says. Live music is almost always better than taped for dance, and it "has attracted a mixed audience, new faces to the dance scene," she notes. "Actual musicians come."
Art.if.Act has an in with local musicians, via Bowman's husband, Ben Nisbet, a violinist with Tucson Symphony Orchestra, and music director for the company. Dance in the Red features live music on more than half of the pieces, showcasing the skills of local classical musicians as well as the popular band Reverie.
All the artists—musicians and dancers alike—get paid.
"We had to raise the ticket price to $45, to pay our expenses and give money to SAAF," Bowman says. "But you get a big bang for your buck. You get live music and dance"—and even a couple of movies that mix the genres.
Laundromats and Dream Destroyers, a short movie directed by Bowman and edited by Hancock, has dancers on film, musicians performing live and even animated poetry onscreen. Shot in locations in downtown Tucson and at a laundry at First Avenue and Prince Road, the silent movie showcases the poetry of Michael Hock. His words will dance across the black-and-white film in animated letters—in red, natch—created by Tim Shaw. Corey Campbell, Jill Wereb and Hancock dance in the film, and Nisbet plays violin, though his notes are not heard: In the old silent-movie tradition, live musicians in the theater will contribute the music, with Michael Dauphinais on piano and Carla Ecker on violin.
The troupe's dancers appear in a second movie, Facing the Monster, directed by UA fine-arts grad Jeejung Kim.
But there's plenty of live dance, too. Hancock restages two works by the late David Berkey, a revered choreographer who died after only one year of teaching at the UA School of Dance.
His "Sentinel," a quartet for four male dancers set to Brahms, closes the first half of the show. The second half opens with his solo "Unicorn," which Hancock dances to a fragment of the soundtrack from the movie A Beautiful Mind.
Art.if.Act had to break the live-music rule in Berkey's case: Both his pieces will be danced to recorded music. "We can't afford a full orchestra for the Brahms," Bowman says with a laugh. "But David's work needs to be on the stage."
UA grad Joshua Blake Carter took time out from his current job dancing for Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago to create a new work, "When Love Becomes Convenient." (Carter and Bowman put together the first Dance in the Red benefit last year when both were still students.) Emily Acre and Corbin Kalinowski dance Carter's duet, and pianist Alexander Tentser, cellist Robert Chamberlain and Ecker play selections from Shostakovich.
Other dances include Bowman's "Mein Herz," a female trio danced by Eboni Taylor and the two artistic directors, to a collection of German songs by Schumann, sung UA tenor Chris Hutchinson; Tenster accompanies him on piano.
The grand finale spotlights Reverie. Dancers will perform works by Hancock, Bowman and UA prof Elizabeth George, while Reverie sings a series of popular tunes, including Paul Simon's "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover."
The dance features a series of couples—gay, lesbian and straight—humorously splitting, Bowman says. "It's funny and fun."