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'Tis the Season 

Before the 'Nutcracker' onslaught, the UA offers homemade seasonal dance performances

Ten days from now, local dance troupes will begin splitting The Nutcracker wide open on stages all over town, but you can consider the alternative: In the Season at Stevie Eller.

Danced by the students of the UA Dance Ensemble the first weekend in December, the concert offers two faculty works and four student pieces that have little or nothing to do with dancing gumdrops or villainous mice.

However, ballet professor Nina Janik's "Opus Black," if not exactly a Not-cracker, offers up an affectionate parody in black of traditional "white ballets."

"Classical ballet has its conventions," Janik noted last week. "The white ballets include the Snow Scene in The Nutcracker, the second acts of Swan Lake and Giselle, and even (Balanchine's) Serenade. There's something sad about them. The first part of my piece lightly quotes them in humorous fashion."

A brand-new 21-minute work in three parts, "Opus Black" deploys 18 dancers in the comical first section, 14 of them women on pointe, all of them in black, dancing to a Beethoven piano trio. Part two turns more serious, examining the dark side of human emotions. Set to another piano trio, this one by Gabriel Fauré, the work has a solo for senior Ashley Mack, and group work for four men.

The third section, danced by all 19 dancers, "depicts dark energy. It's a dynamic and abstract treatment," Janik said. It's set to a Broadway piano composition by Steven Margoshes. The inky costumes are by UA theater professor Rick Tuckett.

Senior Jason Rachel, a double major in dance and art history, is also premiering a big piece, a "holiday spectacular" he's calling "Sweet Suite." A combo of jazz dance and ballet on pointe, it's "exciting and uplifting," Rachel said. The playful work is undertaken by a cast of 25, dancing to festive music by Les Brown and His Band of Renown. Rachel said the title of the annual show--In the Season--inspired him to create the piece, especially, he added, since the concert doesn't usually offer up dances with holiday themes.

The other faculty work, "A Brahms Duet," by ballet professor James Clouser, was created for the Dayton Ballet back in 1991. He's set it on two UA grad students, Elizabeth George and Cory Graham, who coincidentally have both danced with the Dayton. Described as "absolutely beautiful" by faculty chair Jory Hancock, the duet is set to music from Johannes Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Haydn.

Elen Marsh, a second-year grad student from Estonia, presents the solo "Insecurities," danced by freshman Nick Torres.

"Elen worked with a jazz pianist and composer (Jon Robertson) and took a minimalist approach to music and dance," said jazz dance professor Michael Williams. "The piece is beautifully crafted and dynamic, really unusual, with an unexpected appeal. It's less jazzy than the rest of her stuff. It's more contemporary."

Torres, one of a number of promising male freshmen, Williams said, will dance to live piano music performed by Nihan Yesil.

Student Christina Patsalidou contributes "Colors," a multimedia piece that "creates an environment through film," Williams said. "She's collaborating with other fine-arts grad students, in music and film." Her dance also includes aerial movement on a "suspended apparatus on the stage, similar to Orts (O-T-O Dance)."

Senior Amber Duke's modern work, "When Love Speaks," is a "really interesting trio with text," Williams said, meshing movement with the spoken words of Shakespeare's love sonnets.

In the Season runs three times, on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoon. A second concert series, on Thursday night and Saturday afternoon, showcases student works only, including pieces by Marsh, Patsalidou, Hilary Peterson, Philip Edgecombe, Clifton Brown, Kyle Brown and Ryan Lawrence.

The cheerful seasonal shows come at a hard time for the UA Dance Division, Hancock said last week. The dancers have been grieving the loss of modern-dance professor David Berkey, who died Oct. 31. Berkey was memorialized in the mid-November concerts with a performance of two of his works: a comic trio and a lovely ballet-infused modern solo, "Unicorn," the last piece he ever composed. On Nov. 14, the final day of that show, dance legend Rachael Yocom died.

"Rachael was the founding chair of our advisory board," Hancock said. "She was a guiding spirit for all our kids."

As a teacher and later principal of the High School for the Performing Arts in New York City, Yocom trained legions of dancers. Among her students were Ben Vereen, Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, Hancock said. When Yocom moved to Tucson, she championed the UA Dance Division, where she "inspired excellence, dedication, and always, always artistic integrity" The advisory board that she led helped put in place the new Stevie Eller Dance Theatre.

"Usually, Rachael was pushing others forward, encouraging them to take the reins, and challenging them to take charge of their lives," Hancock said. "She was a diamond."

Donations to a memorial scholarship may be sent to Rachael Yocom Scholarship/UA Foundation, care of Suzanne Rice, College of Fine Arts, Music Building, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721.

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