In the olden days along the Orinoco River in Venezuela, there was no day, only night. As recounted in the myths of the Warao, the "boat people" who still live along the Orinoco, the darkness was relieved only by firelight and stars.
The story of how light finally pierced the Warao's perpetual night will be told in The Light Keeper's Box, the Solstice show danced by ZUZI! Dance Company.
ZUZI! director and choreographer Nanette Robinson discovered the Warao tale in The Return of the Light: Twelve Tales from around the World for the Winter Solstice, a 2005 book by Carolyn McVickar Edwards.
"I loved the story," says Robinson, "and I asked Eugenia Woods to adapt the story for us. I'm really excited about this show."
Each year, Robinson finds a new theme for the annual ZUZI! Solstice dance concert. Partly as an alternative to the more familiar winters festivals of light—Hanukkah and Christmas among them—each December, ZUZI celebrates Solstice, which occurs on Tuesday, Dec. 22. The shortest day and longest night of the year, solstice heralds the return of the light, when the hours of daylight begin to lengthen again. For Robinson, the Warao tale fit right in.
In Woods' retelling of the story, a father (Greg Colburn) sends his two daughters, one by one, to the Light Box Keeper to bring light to the people. The first daughter (Jennifer Coughlan) takes a wrong turn and gets distracted by a Deer Dancer, but the second (Monica Boccio) "finds the light," Robinson says.
Woods, a well-known local playwright who is fresh from the SheWorks festival of plays by women, has collaborated with ZUZI before. Her successful 2014 piece, The Migration Project, combined ZUZI's dance and her own drama to tell the real-life stories of refugees in Tucson.
The new work, The Light Keeper's Box, will be told through dance and narration. Alida Gunn, an occasional Borderlands actress, performs the narration while the Deep River Dancers—ZUZI's core group of professional dancers—will dance the nine pieces. They'll also be joined on some works by three guest artists (including the respected local dancer Colburn), a handful of community dancers and some kids.
Two musicians, flutist Elena Martin and singer Sally Withers, play much of the music. The soundscape also incorporates rainstick and rattle in "Gila River Wilderness," a recorded soundtrack by Mark Miceli. A choir will sing in the lobby before the show and on stage at the end.
The colorful production will include masks, rattles and hoops. Dance-wise, the modern movement will alternate between dance on the floor and ZUZI's trademark dance in the air.
Robinson did much of the choreography, but others also took a turn at the helm. Karyn Reim composed a hammock dance for the "Father and Daughters" trio. Coughlan, Robinson and Boccio joined forces on "The Meeting," in which Boccio plays the Deer Dancer who sidetracks daughter number one from her quest.
Choughlan choreographed her own aerial solo for the daughter she plays. Her "silk solo," as Robinson calls it, will have her dancing on swathes of silks dangling from the rafters. Aleena Glinski also dances an aerial piece in "Returning Light," the grand finale choreographed by Robinson.
"It's one whole story," Robinson says, "one vision."
However, for those looking for a more traditional Christmas performing experience, there are several opportunities to see some seasonal favorites leading up to the big day.
On Saturday, Dec. 19, a Grinchy satire of the ubiquitous seasonal classic The Nutracker unfolds late night at Live Theatre Workshop (5317 E. Speedway Blvd.). Written and directed by Carrie Silverman, Nutfactor bills itself as an "adult-themed dance comedy." Drosselmeyer is a sleaze, the Nutfactor Prince is a sad sack and the top fairy is now Sugar Plump, not Plum. The prince and little Clara run off on a psychedelic trip to the Land of Sweets, where Russian dancers are sloshed and Snowflakes are naughty. The 55-minute show begins at 10 p.m. Tickets are $10.
In a more traditional outing, the student dancers from the UA School of Dance perform in The Magic of Christmas, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra's annual family-friendly extravaganza. The festive show is packed with classical works and carols sung by the TSO chorus, including some a cappella, as the UA students spin and pirouette through three dances from The Nutracker. They'll also dance to Strauss's lyrical 1874 opera Die Fledermaus, with plenty of opportunity for the audience to sing along with the stars throughout the show. You'll also want to keep an eye out for a certain big bearded guy in a red suit when Michael Hall conducts the orchestra. The Magic of Christmas is at 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 20, at the Tucson Music Hall (260 S. Church Ave.). Tickets run from $15 to $82.
Perhaps the season's sweetest Nutcracker is reserved for the weekend after Christmas. Dancing in the Streets AZ populates its Land of Sweets and Party Scene with the adorable kids who study ballet at the southside studio. It's a relatively traditional Nutcracker, but with some Latino flair—thus its Spanish subtitle: El Cascanueces. The Civic Orchestra performs the Tchaikovsky score live. This production has only one show at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 27 at Temple of Music and Art (330 S. Scott Ave.). Tickets are available from $13 to $40.