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Sweet Steps 

A dance by the late, great Antony Tudor highlights Ballet Tucson's 'Dance and Dessert'

Ballerina Amanda McKerrow worked for years with choreography great Antony Tudor when she was a young dancer at American Ballet Theatre. So did her husband, John Gardner.

"He influenced everything we did," McKerrow said last week in Tucson, where she and Gardner are setting Tudor's "Little Improvisations" on Ballet Tucson dancers for this weekend's Dance and Dessert concert.

"We worked with him when we were young. He taught you to be aware of what you were saying with your movement. He was never satisfied with anything on the surface. He always wanted you to dig deep."

Tudor is probably the only 20th-century ballet choreographer to rival George Balanchine. An Englishman who grew up in Cockney London, Tudor created psychologically revealing works, among them "Jardin aux Lilas" and "Dark Elegies." He helped found ABT in 1939 and was associated for much of his life with the company. Gardner started dancing with him there in 1978, McKerrow in 1982. Both worked with him until his sudden death at 79 in 1987.

"We rehearsed the day before he passed," said McKerrow, herself an ABT star for 23 years until her retirement in 2005.

This year is the centenary of Tudor's birth, and McKerrow and Gardner are busy traveling the country setting his works on different troupes.

"We work for the Antony Tudor Trust," she explained. "Only a few people are allowed to set his pieces."

Last fall, they went back to New York to stage his pivotal 1975 work "Leaves Are Fading" on ABT. Their next stop after Tucson is Denver, where they'll set the same piece on the Colorado Ballet.

Tudor's "Little Improvisations" will be a highlight of the annual Dance and Dessert concert, which pairs a program of short dances with a menu of fancy sweets contributed by local restaurants.

The duet, to be danced alternately by Erica Alvarado and César Rubio, and Aurora Frey and Isaac Sharratt, is "one of his more obscure pieces. It's intricate, but a simple little piece. Mr. Tudor called small works like this 'dance arrangements.'"

Set to Schumann's Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood), it's about "children playing in the attic on a Sunday afternoon. They're alleviating their boredom with a length of cloth. It's naïve in its subject matter. It has a beauty everyone can relate to: the simplicity of play, the beauty of play."

McKerrow and Gardner have a loose "artistic associate" relationship with the local professional company--last year, they set Tudor's "Continuo" on the dancers--and they'll be back in town in May to help with the major production of Cinderella.

Having artists of this caliber working with the dancers has been a big feather in Ballet Tucson's cap. But their next step with the company is not yet certain.

"We're busy this season and next with the Tudor Trust," McKerrow said. "We haven't talked about next season yet" with Ballet Tucson.

Apart from "Little Improvisations," Dance and Dessert features a tasting menu of seven other dances, three of them contributed by guest artists. Balancing out the Tudor ballet is a modern dance by guest artist Kim Robards of Denver. Her troupe, the eponymous Kim Robards Dance, recently won a slot performing at the prestigious Joyce Theater in New York.

Mary Beth Cabana, Ballet Tucson's founder and artistic director, met up with Robards last summer, when both were teaching at Burklyn Ballet Theatre in Vermont. She was so taken with Robards' work that she invited her to set her "Cascade" on the Tucson dancers. A full-company work, it was inspired by a trip Robards took in the Rockies.

"Kim camped by a waterfall," Cabana said, and the movement conjures up water rushing down the mountain. "It's a dynamic, energetic, athletic piece." The silvery costumes--flowing dresses, pants and tops--evoke the cascading water.

Modern is a refreshing departure for the audience, Cabana said, and it's energizing for her ballet dancers as well. And since Robards does "Limón-based modern, it's easier to translate onto ballet dancers."

The always witty Sam Watson, who teaches modern and jazz dance at the UA, is the third guest choreographer. He serves up "Birthday Variations," set to six different versions of the familiar birthday song, including classical interpretations by Haydn, Schumann and Brahms, and renditions in polka, ragtime and tango. Five women in party dresses frolic through the comical piece. The partygoers are Megan Terry, Deanna Doncsecz, Nadia Ali, Emily Conelly and Frey.

Two Ballet Tucson artists turn in premieres. Managing director Jeffrey Graham Hughes created "Light Shining From Above," a ballet for four women and four men. A friend who works for NASA sent Hughes radio and plasma sounds captured from outer space, he explained. "They're actual sounds from Saturn."

Hughes has blended the extraterrestrial tones into a soundscape that includes whales recorded deep in the ocean, drumming and a chant of "Sanctus" from the old Latin Mass.

"It's a dance exploration, danced on pointe," Hughes said. "It's a ballet. One of the things about ballet is that there's so much versatility in what we do technically."

The eight dancers--Stuart Lauer, Michael Dunsmore, Daniel Escudero, Samantha Chang, Meredith Dulaney, Elise Vitso, Alvarado and Sharratt--are dressed in form-fitting black.

Associate artistic director Chieko Imada debuts a jazzy pas de deux, "Rhapsody for Two," danced by stars Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Cabana reprises her "Springtide," a 1986 ballet set to a "beautiful Brahms quartet." She choreographed it for the professional troupe she had briefly in the late '80s, and it has not been seen in 20 years.

"I didn't have the dancers to do it," she said. Now that she has a professional company again, "I'm in a position to take it out of the attic and dust it off. It's nice to see your work again. The movement is beautiful and sensual."

With 10 dancers dressed in flowing pastel costumes, the piece "ushers in the spring."

"Springtide" opens the concert, and Mia Hansen's "Step Right Up!" closes it. Rounded out by the company trainees, a full cast of 20 conjures up the big top. Last seen about five years ago, "it's a crazy circus piece" complete with "ringmaster, tightrope walkers and a crocodile wrestler."

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