Dance’s Spooky Season

Ballet Tucson performs Phantom of the Opera and Balanchine’s haunting Walpurgisnacht

There's a reason that Ballet Tucson now has 27 female dancers. That reason is George Balanchine, who once said, "Ballet is woman."

The local professional troupe has once again won permission to stage a ballet by the neoclassical master, a very big deal in the ballet world. At this weekend's season opening concert the company will, for the first time, dance Balanchine's 1975 Walpurgisnacht Ballet, about a spooky night when witches dance and the dead walk.

The eerie dance, choreographed as just one scene in the Gounod opera Faust, a story about a man who sells his soul to the devil, requires no fewer than 24 women—and just one man.

"We knew we needed a lot of women," artistic director Mary Beth Cabana says. What with understudies and double-casting of the female lead—a role alternated by Taylor Johnson and Megan Steffens—"we have a total of 27 women involved in the piece."

Two men, Isaiah Sumler and Connolly Strombeck, share the part of Faust, the lone man.

The troupe has ramped up to meet the Balanchine challenge: it's now at its "biggest size ever" with 15 female pro dancers, 12 female apprentices and eight male pros. That makes for a total of 35 dancers, a major jump up from last year's 28.

"We're so excited," Cabana says. "We now have dancers from the U.S., Mexico, Japan and South Africa."

That international woman-power and man-power allows the troupe to take on all three of the major works planned for this weekend's concerts. In addition to Balanchine's Walpurgisnacht Ballet, the company will reprise its original 2013 Phantom of the Opera, an hour-long dramatic ballet that opens the concert, and Paquita—Grand Pas Classique, a classic ballet from 1881 that closes it.

All three of the works have "huge ensembles," Cabana says.

Phantom of the Opera, with its haunting backstage "opera ghost" and problematic chandelier, fits in with Ballet Tucson's tradition of opening its season with spooky works that fit in with Halloween. The story is now familiar to audiences the world over from Andrew Lloyd Webber's smash Broadway production, but Ballet Tucson's version reaches farther back in time.

"Our version is based on the 1920s silent film," Cabana says, which in turn was sourced from the 1910 French novel by Pierre Lafitte.

"The whole troupe is in it," she says, in addition to children from Ballet Arts, the company's school, who play students in the Paris Opera Ballet. Taylor Johnson, a star of Walpurgisnacht, dances the part of Christine, the singer singled out by the Phantom, played by Mauricio Vergara.

The company has gone to great lengths with the scenery, with an approximation of the "sewer system under the lair" and that pesky chandelier. Videos of the shadowy opera-house setting are projected onto the backdrop. Fun fact: Gounod's 1859 Faust is the opera under production in the Paris opera house in the original Phantom story.

Paquita -- Grand Pas Classique, the most traditional of the evening's ballets, is a "divertissement from an older ballet," Cabana says.

The fiery Spanish-themed Paquita debuted in Paris in 1846, but the famed choreographer Marius Petipa revived and lengthened it 35 years later, debuting the new version in St. Petersburg in 1881. Set during the Napoleon occupation of Spain in the early 19th century, the narrative focuses on a gypsy girl, Paquita, who turns out to be of noble birth. The Grand Pas Classique, an excerpt often performed alone, is a wedding celebration excerpted from Act Three of Petipa's version, danced to music by Minkus.

Last performed by Ballet Tucson in 2007, the piece stars prima ballerina Jenna Johnson in the title role. Company ballet master Daniel Precup staged it together for this outing, with input from Cabana and assistant artistic director Chieko Imada.

Walpurgisnacht Ballet is the second Balanchine piece that Ballet Tucson has gotten the go-ahead to perform. The first was Serenade, a famous all-female ballet, which the company danced in spring 2016. Knowing the troupe's strength in female dancers, "The Balanchine Trust suggested that we do Walpurgisnacht Ballet."

Zippora Karz, a former soloist in the New York City Ballet who now works for the trust, came out to Tucson to set the work on the local dancers.

"She goes all over the county to stage ballet works," Cabana said. Karz will return a few days before opening night to make final tweaks and bring the piece onto the stage at Stevie Eller

The dancers, many of them new to the company, are going through a strenuous four weeks of rehearsal to master the notoriously difficult Balanchine vocabulary.

His movement, says Cabana, who frequently danced "Mr. B's" works during her career with Cleveland Ballet, is "very quick, a combination of precision and abandon. A lot of it looks wild but it is precisely done. Dancers have to pay attention to detail in every step."

As of last week, the dance was "starting to gel," Cabana reports. "The dancers are solid. I keep telling them it's important to create the atmosphere in everything you do. Even when you're still it's very important.

"I tell them, 'You're a living, breathing piece of sculpture.'"