The Chinese loved Artifact Dance Project's Great American Dance Tour concert last year. Giant billboards splashed images of the Tucson dancers and musicians in cities across China; critics raved; audiences begged for encores.
Likewise, Tucsonans liked last year's Come Together Beatles show of music and modern dance at ZUZI! so much that they sang along on "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and "Let It Be."
"We had sold-out houses," says ZUZI! artistic director Nanette Robinson. "So many people said, 'You need to do this again.'"
No sooner had ADP finished its grueling tour of 14 Chinese cities in 28 days than the troupe was invited to come back this year.
"It was amazing and exhausting," says Claire Hancock, co-artistic director with Ashley Bowman of ADP. "We looked at each other and said, 'Can we do this again?'"
The answer, from both troupes, was yes. This weekend, both companies are taking the unusual step of reprising their popular concerts from last year.
ADP will preview its showbizzy history of American popular dance for Tucson audiences at the UA's Stevie Eller Theatre, just days before taking off to China for a second time. Meanwhile, ZUZI will restage its Beatles concert of live music and modern dance at its theater in the Historic Y.
"We could do it every year," Robinson says with a laugh. "There are 200 Beatles songs."
Both troupes rely on live musicians, though the Beatles show also blends recordings by the Fab Four with the musicians' live performances.
Here's the rundown on both shows.
"The Chinese want a huge, blow-out show," Hancock says, "so we tried to magnify it, to fill up the stage, to up the wow factor.
"If we had five couples onstage for a piece least year, we'll have six this year. We added vocalists. It hangs its hat on what we did last year, but we're just overall giving it a larger look."
ADP is young by performing-arts standards, just finishing its third season. So when Hancock and Bowman were asked in the second year to organize a major tour to China—and create all the choreography—they hesitated, but only briefly. The two young choreographers dived in and composed nothing less than a history of American popular dance, beginning with vaudeville and the Charleston, and continuing through ragtime, big band, jitterbug, soul and hip-hop.
"We stop with pop, with Michael Jackson," Hancock says. Their glittery costumes, from flapper dresses to tuxedos to cowboy hats, reflect the different eras.
The tour operator, Dalian Yilong Performance Company, originally wanted 40 dancers, but ADP negotiated for a troupe of 28 dancers and 12 musicians. They're committed to always performing with live music, Hancock says, a principle crucial to the success of a monthlong tour.
"Live music keeps the tour fresh," she says adamantly. "Doing it to canned music would not be good."
Bowman and Hancock will reprise their dance roles, but most of the other dancers are new to the tour. Many of them are freshmen and sophomores in the UA School of Dance; two men are students at Pima Community College, and one woman is a dancer in Glendale.
"They're real young and vibrant; they love to perform," Hancock says. "They feel like this is a great opportunity."
Violinist Ben Nisbet, a co-artistic director of ADP (and Bowman's husband), will return for the tour, along with a slightly enlarged ensemble of musicians, who play everything from cello to viola to trumpet and drums. Three vocalists—Rebecca Carlson, Kelli Workman and Carlos "Charlie" Hall—will handle the singing.
The trio represents another effort to jazz up the show, Hancock says. "We didn't have a lead male vocalist last year."
A new tech director and lighting designer, Don Fox, has recharged the big-band look. The musicians sit on onstage risers behind the dancers, and backdrop projections of historic photos—with explanatory text in Mandarin—help lead the Chinese audience through the phases of American dance.
The singers had to learn a little Mandarin as well. As a gift to its Chinese audiences, the company's encore number is danced to "Crescent Moon," a popular Chinese lullaby. The vocalists deliver it in Mandarin, and the audiences go wild, Hancock says.
This year's schedule will ease up slightly—13 cities in 30 days. The performers will have a bit of time for cultural exchange.
One of the best moments last year, Hancock remembers, was a visit to the Beijing Dance Academy. The Chinese dancers performed for their American visitors, dancing numbers from Rent—sung partly in Mandarin.
ZUZI! deploys 40 performers for Come Together: nine musicians and 31 dancers, including 12 regular company members, eight apprentices, 10 dancers in the Many Limbs youth company, and one guest dancer. The dancers will turn up in crayon-bright '60s-style clothing, and perform in front of a painted backdrop mimicking a Peter Max poster.
The guest artist, Henry Graham, is a "stunning dancer," Robinson enthuses. "He was on So You Think You Can Dance, and he danced behind Beyoncé. He loves ZUZI."
Graham is living in Tucson now, and he'll dance a brand-new solo to "Yesterday" that Robinson created for him. He'll also sub in four other pieces for company regular Scott Bird, who is injured.
Another new guest artist is pianist Bobby Ronstadt, who'll play several solo interludes between dances. For one, he'll hit the ivories while the Fab Four—giant Beatles-head puppets created by local artist Matt Cotten of Puppets Amongus—parade onstage.
Other musicians include company regular Pablo Peregrina, a singer and guitarist; bassist Chet Gardiner; and Bubba Fass on Cuban congas. Sally Withers sings, as does guitarist James Dumbauld, moonlighting from his day job as a physician.
Besides "Yesterday," the show debuts two more dances. Company member Ekida Laurie composed a quartet to a medley of five Beatles songs, including "Get Back" and "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window."
Carie Schneider's new piece, "Yellow Submarine," for the youth dancers, replaces last year's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite."
And like ADP, the ZUZI! artists have ratcheted up some of the existing dances. For "Rain," danced with umbrellas, Robinson upped the number of dancers from four to six. Last year, the dancers stayed on the ground—but this time, they'll fly through the air on two trapezes.
In fact, many of the 20 dances will be performed in the air, from—logically—"Lucy in the Sky" to "If I Fell," a lovely duet Graham will dance with Maria Sara Villa. Robinson composed both dances.
Other choreographers include guest artist Darrell Wilmore ("Eleanor Rigby") and company dancers Sara Anderson Stewart, Monica Boccio, Alison Hart and Melissa Buckheit. Mechelle Flemming ("She's Leaving Home") is seven months pregnant, Robinson says, but she might glide in and dance a few measures of her piece "She's Leaving Home/Tomorrow Never Knows."
One more surprise awaits ZUZI! fans.
"This will be our first performance with air conditioning," Robinson says. Crews are in the final stages of installing the new system; the company is continuing to raise money to cover the costs. As Robinson notes, "It will make life so much better."