Valley of the Sundance

Phoenix dominates the Arizona Contemporary Dance Festival.

The Phoenicians are coming to town. On March 22, some seven dance troupes from the Valley of the Sun will dance in the ninth annual Arizona Contemporary Dance Festival, but just two hometown teams will appear.

"The purpose of the festival is to get more exposure for companies statewide and to keep building audiences for dance," said organizer Lisa R. Chow, of Desert Dance Theatre, one of the troupes performing. "This gives companies a chance to meet companies from around the state. They're used to seeing people from their hometown but not elsewhere."

But the Phoenicians won't be meeting too many Tucsonans. NEW ARTiculations, a modern dance company, and Eva Tessler, an independent choreographer and performer, will be the only locals joining the Phoenix crowd. A third, Deborah Feldman, another independent, dropped out because of an injury, Chow said.

New rules ended up either excluding or offending several of the Tucson dance companies. Companies already on the Arizona Commission of the Arts roster automatically qualified for entry, but others, no matter how well established, had to submit to judging. All the judges hailed from the Valley of the Sun, and some Tucson troupes said, "Thanks but no thanks."

Nevertheless, the concert will give Tucsonans a chance to see Phoenix's interesting mix of companies. The festival, organized by the Arizona Dance Arts Alliance, kicked off in February in Scottsdale. (A third concert will be held in Sedona May 10.) Leigh Ann Rangel, a co-artistic director of NEW ART and head of Pima's Live Arts, a co-presenter of the concert in Tucson, saw the Scottsdale show.

"The Phoenix companies are all really different and they do really good stuff," she said. "They're all contemporary but with different approaches."

Frances Cohen, the respected artistic director of Center Dance Ensemble, resident company of Phoenix's Herberger Theater, is known for "classical modern dance," Chow said. Years ago, Cohen lived in Tucson, and worked with the UA Dance Division in its early days. For the Tucson concert, Cohen invited guest choreographer Donald Dadey to compose a piece. Formerly associate artistic director of Ballet Arizona, Dadey will offer "Aubade," a big work for 11 dancers set to Debussy.

A Ludwig Dance Theatre, headquartered in Tempe, began in 1977 in California under Ann Ludwig. The group tends toward "dance theater, not just movement for movement's sake," Chow said. Now a professor of dance at Arizona State University, Ludwig is showing "VICTORYvictory," a work meant to "raise consciousness" about world events of the last several years. Don Espinosa will dance the solo piece.

The multicultural Desert Dance Theatre, led by Chow, Marion Kirk Jones and Renée Davis, is now in its 24th year. Specializing in works dealing with serious social issues, the company gave a 10th anniversary performance of "Sister Moses," a dance drama of the life of Harriet Tubman, in February.

"It's our Nutcracker," Chow said, "only we do it for Black History Month." For the Tucson show, though, the troupe will dance against type. A quartet of dancers will perform "Metal Garden," an "abstract movement work" by choreographer Cliff Keuter.

Among the younger Phoenix companies, Scorpius Dance Theatre is dedicated to "humor, drama and organic movement." Founded by Lisa Starry in 1999, the troupe will present Starry's "(Salvation) A Beginning to the End," a sextet danced to music by the Kronos Quartet.

Two of the troupes are associated with Scottsdale Community College. Instinct Dancecorps, a self-described multimedia dance ensemble, will put four dancers to work in "Running the White," a piece by K.T. Nelson, set to Bach. Patricia Bodell directs Instinct, which is the dance component of the college's Maricopa Institute for Arts and Entertainment Technology, Chow said. Students from the regular dance department perform as the Scottsdale Community College Moving Company. Led by Liz Casebolt and Carley Conder, the troupe will dance "Exit Song," a trio choreographed by Cynthia Gutierrez-Garner to Radiohead music.

Casebolt also runs her own eponymous troupe, lizcasebolt&dancers, a new company that will have six dancers moving through her "Now You See It." A graduate of New York University's competitive dance program, Casebolt's career maps out the links among the numerous Phoenix troupes. Now co-artistic director of two troupes, she's also danced with Cohen's Center Dance Ensemble, Scorpius Dance Theatre and the late Semaphor Danceworks.

In the small Tucson contingent, Eva Tessler will perform her own work, "Grandmother Turns 100."

"It's about an old lady who is in a nursing home and starting to remember," Tessler said, noting that the character draws her inspiration from "my grandmother, mother and myself." A ballet and modern dance teacher at Tucson High Magnet School, and a choreographer and director, Tessler was long associated with the now defunct Zenith Dance Collective. She's working with the Latina Dance Project, a bicoastal collaborative of four Latina dancer/choreographers, which has performed "Chicana modern dance" outside of Tucson. Tessler hopes to bring the Project to town this fall for a residency.