Song-And-Dance Star To Perform With UA Artists.
By Margaret Regan
THIS YEAR THE UA dance faculty decided on something a little different to energize its annual spring concert: Ben Vereen.
That's the Ben Vereen who's a singing, dancing Tony-winning star of Broadway (Pippin, Sweet Charity, Jesus Christ Superstar), television actor (Roots, Webster, etc.) and occasional movie performer (All That Jazz). The Ben Vereen who tours so often in different parts of the world that the UA dance professors are not yet sure which tunes he'll be singing at their shows this Friday and Saturday night. The self-same.
How did they snare Vereen? Granted, the UA dance division has been ranked in the top 20 university programs in the nation, but Vereen is a certified star. Actually, says dance division head Jory Hancock, it wasn't all that hard to sign him up. The connection was originally made through the good graces of the late Gertrude Shurr, the legendary dance teacher who retired to Tucson and influenced a generation of dancers here.
"Ben was in Tucson four years ago," Hancock said by phone last week from a theatre, where he was about to watch one of his grad students perform. "He came to a presentation for Gertrude Shurr. She was his teacher at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. She had returned to Tucson, and people in the dance division used her as a counsel. We did a concert for Gertrude and a ceremony after.
"Ben was impressed by the quality of our dancers, something he didn't expect in a college department. A year later, I asked him if he'd consider performing with us. He agreed. It took two more years to make it happen."
For its part, Hancock says, the dance department is trying to help Vereen out with his current project putting together a performing arts school in inner-city Chicago, similar to the New York school that turned his own life around. Hancock says he's giving Vereen advice on grants and so on, and has nominated him for an honorary degree.
At the Centennial Hall concert, Vereen will belt out three or four songs in the second half of the concert, Hancock says. Live music will be played by the student musicians of the Studio Jazz Ensemble and the Orchestra Nova. Vereen, long known as a song-and-dance man, will not likely be dancing himself. He was seriously injured after being hit by a car several years ago, and told Hancock, "I'm kind of out of shape."
Still, says Hancock, "He'll move around. Anything he does will be electric."
In other concert highlights, Tucson audiences will get to see the choreography of Amy Ernst, the division's new professor of modern dance. Her "Horizons," to be danced by the students, is an energetic evocation of the Nebraska plains where she used to live. Hancock and his wife, Melissa Lowe, will perform "L'Anniversaire," a work by the dynamic choreographer Douglas Nielsen, who wowed Tucson audiences in his guest performance with Tenth Street Danceworks several seasons back. Live music will be provided by singer Grayson Hirst and pianist Suzanne Knosp.
John Wilson, who always provides his own interesting versions of world dance styles, drew inspiration from a trip to China. He'll perform with the students in his new work "How Sea and Sun Made Earth a Place to Walk Upon," based on Chinese folktales. Other pieces include new jazz works "Texas Canyon" by Susan Quinn and "Scat" by Michael Williams, and a ballet piece, "Emerald Emergence," by Nina Janik. Hancock and Lowe choreographed the ballet "English Suite," an homage to the Scottish highlands.
How do these faculty members feel about their famous co-star?
"Oh, they're excited, sure," Hancock said. "It's a real strain, communications are hard. But it's really exciting."
Celebrate Dance, a UA dance faculty concert with guest star Ben Vereen, is at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 29 and 30, at Centennial Hall. Tickets, available at the box office, are $12 to $18 for reserved seats, $7 to $15 for general seating. A reception for Vereen follows the Friday night show at Park Center south of the theatre. Only those with ticket stubs will be admitted to the reception. For more information call 621-3341.
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