ALONG ABOUT LAST summer, the modern dance companies of Arizona decided it was high time to perform together in a single concert.
Six troupes strong, they danced the first ever Arizona Contemporary Dance Festival for three consecutive nights last weekend on the dance-friendly Herberger Theater stage in Phoenix. This weekend, they're traveling down the freeway to reprise the concert Saturday night at Pima Community College West Campus Center for the Arts. The one-night-only Tucson performance is an unprecedented chance for Old Pueblo dance lovers to take a gander at what's going on in the big valley north of us.
"This is the first time we've all really gotten together," says Charlotte Adams, artistic director of Tucson's familiar Tenth Street Danceworks. Tenth Street, along with Orts Theatre of Dance, represents Tucson in the festival. "It's kind of amazing that there are six modern dance companies in Arizona that do distinctly different things. To have six professional companies in a state this size is pretty wonderful."
The out-of-towners are Desert Dance Theatre, which at 16 years holds claim to being the oldest surviving modern-dance company in the state; A Ludwig Dance Theatre, second oldest at age 15; Center Dance Ensemble, founded in 1988 by the venerated choreographer Frances Smith Cohen, formerly of Tucson; and Movement Source, started up some seven seasons ago.
Each of the companies has its own identity, ranging from Center Dance's classical modernism to Movement Source's youthful commercialism, and each has maneuvered its way through the financial pitfalls of the dance world in unique ways. To a woman, their artistic directors expressed the hope that the festival, put together by dance impresario Chuck Fischl, will sell enough tickets to warrant a return engagement next year.
"I hope people show up," Cohen says. "There are a lot of wonderful dancers and choreographers in the state. This is making us be heard."
Orts will open up the evening with a reprise of its "Nine Waltzes," a Robert Davidson piece for eight dancers who float through the air on trapezes above the stage. Tenth Street follows with "If Love Could Die," a lyrical Adams work for three dancers set to 17th century choral music. The rest of the evening will be given over to the Phoenicians. Here are some capsule profiles:
Desert Dance Theatre, based in Tempe, has a loose affiliation with the dance department at Arizona State University. Marion Kirk Jones, one of three company artistic directors, teaches at ASU and the university lends the troupe rehearsal space.
"We're a multicultural group of people," says co-artistic director and dancer Lisa R. Chow. "We're not only focusing people on dance but on society." Through what Chow calls "theme works" incorporating dance, music and drama, the company tells the stories of such heroes as Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King, Jr. A King piece called "Free At Last" premiered in mid-January in Phoenix, with a community chorus providing vocals. The group's multicultural orientation has won it a financial windfall from the Motorola Corporation, which regularly buys up tickets to its concerts and distributes them free to its employees.
The troupe won't perform any of its major works in the festival concert, which has limited each company to just 15 minutes' performance time. Instead, they'll offer "Craps," a 1979 Bill Evans dance reconstructed by Virginia Nicholas, about a "game of one-upmanship that uses humor throughout," Chow says. Desert Dance's second number, "Enigma," is a work for five women that Chow developed out of an earlier solo.
A Ludwig Dance Theatre "is very issue-oriented," says founder and sole choreographer Ann Ludwig, an ASU dance professor. "I'm particularly interested in women's issues." Ludwig started the company in California in 1977 and then re-formed it in 1980 after she got the ASU job. "We've been struggling ever since," she says, adding, "We've been to Tucson. We lose our shirts every time." It's not easy to find large audiences for her serious, experimental works along the lines of "Empowered" and "Order of Protection," about domestic violence, or "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," about homeless women.
Like Chow, Ludwig decided to bring a crowd-pleaser to Tucson. "Suite Tango," an energetic work for five dancers, "has lots of (taped) tango music. It's sprightly and fast and has the sensuousness of tango. But real tango dancers might have a heart attack. I don't take anything as it really is. It's not at all trying to be tango. It's my version."
Center Dance Ensemble, the resident company at Herberger, is under the artistic direction of choreographer Cohen. "Tucson is my home, where all my love is," the Phoenix transplant says. Cohen grew up in Tucson, and from 1955 to 1970 ran the Kadimah Dancers company in association with the Tucson Jewish Community Center. She co-founded the UA dance program in 1972 and taught at the UA for many years.
Center Dance is about as stable as a modern dance troupe gets. "We have a subscription series, we do four performance runs a year and we have a resident choreographer, Cliff Keuter, an internationally known choreographer who happens to live here in Phoenix," Cohen says. "Our dream of a full-time company has not come to fruition but the dancers work three times a week and we pay their insurances, taxes and workmen's comp."
Artistically, the company is a "classical modern dance company, very similar to the Paul Taylor Company," says Cohen. "Our work is eclectic, both abstract and narrative." She recently completed two 45-minute narrative works, one inspired by Dracula, the other by The Diary of Anne Frank. But her hometown audience won't have the chance to see any Cohen choreography, some of which was on the Phoenix program. In Tucson, five dancers will perform Keuter's lively "Slaughter on 10th Avenue," based on a modern ballet from the old Broadway show, On Your Toes. Soloist Pauline Mitchell will dance "It All Boils Down to Me," by noted Chicago choreographer Tim O'Slynne.
Movement Source, Tempe, was not originally invited to be in the festival. "We get left out a lot," company founder and director Mary Anne Fernandez-Herding says cheerfully. "We're the baby company."
Fernandez-Herding has a Tucson connection, too--she got her master's in dance at the UA before hiring on as a dance teacher at South Mountain High School, the arts magnet in the Phoenix Union High School District. "A network that allows all the members to choreograph," Movement Source has no trouble selling tickets. "We pay as much attention to marketing as to the artistic end of it," Fernandez-Herring says. "Being accessible is our signature too. We're crossing entertainment with art. We do a lot of multimedia work with live music and video. That integration of the arts brings in people."
Movement Source will conclude the Tucson concert with "That's All, Folks!" choreographed by Luc Bal. Featuring all nine company members, the dance is "comedic, with wild costumes, cartoon figures, cartoon music from Warner Brothers and a great Bugs Bunny."
The Arizona Contemporary Dance Festival begins at 8 p.m., Saturday, February 4, at the Pima Community College West Campus Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $15, with a $5 discount for students and children. Tickets are available at Dillard's or by calling 1800-638-4253. For more information call 8846458.
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