Busy Feet

Riverdance stomps its way into Tucson, kicking off two weeks of numerous dance performances.

Rudely awakened at a hotel the morning after an Albuquerque debut, dancer Melissa Convery quickly recovers her Irish charm. Clearing her throat, she liltingly declares, "No, no, it's lovely now. I can talk; it's fine."

Convery is the lead female dancer and dance captain of Riverdance, the Irish music/dance phenomenon. Arriving in Tucson Tuesday for an eight-show gig at Centennial, Riverdance is the biggest and splashiest of a handful of separate dance concerts coming up during the next two weeks. (The others include performances by a new mime troupe and the UA student dancers and faculty. See below for more info.)

Convery is not averse to telling the truth about Riverdance, and she reveals that Irish step dancing hurts. A lot.

"Your feet get quite sore," she cheerfully admits.

In Irish traditional dance, as Riverdance's many fans know, dancers keep their body stiff, kick their legs high and stomp their feet down hard. The company offers a jazzed-up, showbizzy version of Irish rince, but its 32 troupers, veterans of the competition-dance circuit in Ireland, still strut the traditional stuff. Convery herself has been All-Ireland and Ulster champion numerous times, and last summer, she step-danced in Spain with The Chieftains, a certifiably traditional band.

"After the show, it's important to cool down," she says, and then head for the hot tub. Which brings us to Convery revelation No. 2: As far the Riverdancers go, the best hotels are those with the biggest hot tubs, roomy enough to accommodate not only the troupe's 32 Irish dancers, but its five Irish musicians and six choir singers. Not to mention the two American tap dancers, one flamenco artist and six Russian hoofers who also perform in the show, the better to demonstrate movement similarities across ethnic dance forms.

"We were in Vegas last week," Convery remembers dreamily. "Their tub was so huge! It was lovely."

No. 3: The Japanese are the most enthusiastic Riverdance fans. Convery and the others have stomped and high-kicked their way through the United States, Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia, but the fan-o-meter tilted most crazily in Japan.

"The response there was phenomenal. They got so excited. There was this bridge outside the theater in one city, and 500 people lined up on it. It was packed with people. We had security like the Beatles. And they loved the show."

No. 4: The Riverdancers don't mind at all that in the United States, hordes of Hibernians show up at the concerts in slightly goofy Kelly green sweaters.

"There are lots of Irish-Americans around," Convery acknowledges sweetly. "When you tour the States, so many people have relatives at home."

In fact, Convery located some of her own in Binghampton, N.Y. They came around after the show to tell her they have the same last name, an unusual one in Ireland. Turned out they had relatives in the next town over from Convery's in Northern Ireland. And upon further investigation, it turned out that the ties were even closer.

"They're my father's second cousins!" she says. "I had no idea."

And No. 5: Say what you will about Riverdance's sexing up a traditional art form; it's provided a whole new career for legions of Irish dancers who would otherwise have had to hang up their hard shoes at a tender age.

"Absolutely it has indeed," Convery says. "To get a career out of it is fantastic. It used to be you'd stop dancing at 18."

AT THE OTHER END OF CAMPUS this weekend, in the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, the UA Dance Ensemble gives four performances of Premium Blend, a concert of choreography by the dance faculty and guest choreographer Sherry Zunker. Zunker, founding artistic director of River North Chicago, premieres "Reality of a Dreamer," a contemporary jazz piece. Set to the tunes of the Eurhythmics, it's billed as "bold and brash with a distinctive theatrical edginess."

UA jazz dance Prof. Susan Quinn presents "Chairography," which propels her student dancers around a stage loaded with chairs, as well as the athletic "Particle Ballet." Ballet Prof. James Clouser deploys an all-male trio in "Three Anomalous Dances for Gentlemen," spoofing the typically male fixation on electronics. Ballet Prof. Nina Janik teamed up with Suzanne Knosp, the department's composer and pianist, to create "The Kissing Waltz." Knosp will play the piano live while three couples dance and try to kiss.

David Berkey, the dance division's new modern teacher, set a pair of interlocking solos, "Waiting Game," on students Claire Hancock and Kyle Mullins. Prof. Sam Watson closes the show with "High Jinks," a four-part comic work based on old-time television variety shows.

Premium Blend is at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 26-28, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 29, at Stevie Eller. Tickets cost $16.50, $13.50 for seniors and UA staff and $10.50 for students. For info, call 621-1162.

ALSO THIS WEEKEND, A BRAND-new mixed-genre group, the William Campbell Group and Theatrical Mime Theatre, debuts Elemental Stories: An Evening of Mime and Music. Campbell, who plays piano with the Sonoran Consort, composes music and sings, provides the "art" music on the program. Lorie Heald and Rick Wamer are the mimes, but they write that they're pioneering a new form of "theatrical mime" light years away from the old annoying "box-entrapped, white-faced street performer."

Elemental Stories takes place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 27 and 28, at ZUZI Theatre in the old YWCA, 738 N. Fifth Ave. Tickets cost $12 general and $8 students. They're available at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., and Hear's Music, 2508 N. Campbell Ave. For info, call 235-3223.