Fools, Fairies, Etc.

Ballet Tucson closes out its season with a Shakespeare classic

For the third time this century, César Rubio is playing Puck, the lovable Shakespeare sprite who flies across stage on a leafy swing and utters the immortal words: "What fools these mortals be."

Except in the ballet version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck doesn't speak the words out loud. In the dance version, on the boards courtesy of Ballet Tucson, body language subs for the spoken version, and facial expressions do the rest.

Longtime dancer Rubio is more than up to the task.

"Puck is a perfect role for him," says Mary Beth Cabana, the company artistic director and co-choreographer of the full-length ballet. "It fits his character. He's a real personality. He's gotten himself into great shape for the part."

Rubio reliably plays comical and character parts for Ballet Tucson, the city's professional ballet troupe. In "Masquerade," a new ballet premiered by the company last fall, Rubio danced the joker at the ball, gleefully gallivanting between the ladies' gowns and humorously subverting the high art of ballet.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rubio's Puck is a bare-chested sprite with horns, a gleeful mischief-maker who sometimes seems like the only sane creature in the dizzying free-for-all of Shakespeare's story.

The story ballet unfurls by the light of the moon, as an enchanted set of characters confusedly roam a forest by night. Under the spell of magical potions dispensed by Puck, two sets of young lovers mistakenly pursue the wrong partners, and a Fairy Queen falls in love with an Ass.

A laugh-out-loud contingent of laborers rehearse a play drawn from antiquity for the Duke's upcoming nuptials. Fairies and butterflies flit through the foliage.

At once the most magical and visual of Shakespeare's plays, the story readily lends itself to ballet, Cabana says. And just to help the audience keep the love tangles untangled, she says, "The costumes are color-coded, so people know which couples should be together."

Helena, the young woman danced by Deanna Doncsecz, is dressed all in silver, and so is her beloved, Demetrius (Cory Gram). Hermia (Meredith Dulaney) and Lysander (Stuart Lauer) are all in gold. The Duke (Askar Alimbetov) and his bride, Hippolyta (Megan Terry), wear nothing but purple.

Ballet Tucson's stars, real-life husband-and-wife Daniel Precup and Jenna Johnson, dance the parts of the warring King and Queen of Fairies, Oberon and Titania. Bottom, the carpenter who magically turns into a donkey—and becomes Titania's new love—is played by actor Joe McGrath. The company's Drosselmeyer every year in The Nutcracker, McGrath recently played an especially evil Iago in Rogue Theatre's production of still another Shakespeare play, Othello.

Burdened down with his big donkey head, McGrath "does a ridiculous pas-de-deux with Titania," Cabana says with a laugh. And the laborers' comical play-within-a-play segment "is more mime than dance."

Cabana, assistant artistic director Chieko Imada and former company choreographer Mark Schneider first choreographed the full-length ballet back in 2003, and reprised it in 2006. This time, with the company in its sixth year with pro status, the dances were made more intricate, and more dazzling.

The company's artistic associates, Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, former stars of American Ballet Theatre, "reworked the parts. They're still telling the story, but adding virtuoso techniques."

The ballet is performed to the music of Felix Mendelssohn. The happy-ever-after wedding scene at the end is set to Mendelssohn's famous "Wedding March." Marius Petipa, the Russian-French choreographer, created the first Midsummer Night's Dream ballet in 1876, but modern versions are inspired by George Balanchine's rendition, first danced by the New York City Ballet in 1962.

Ballet Tucson sets the fairy tale entirely in the enchanted forest, against a backdrop of the moon shining on the trees. Titania's bower is a giant bird's nest, garlanded by flowers.

Besides the 20 dancers in the pro company, the cast of 90 includes kids from Ballet Arts studio flitting around as pixies and fireflies. Preteen dancer Elias Frantziskonis gets a featured role as a caterpillar in Oberon's entourage.

"We usually do a really big piece at the end of the year," Cabana says, with hopes that a story ballet will draw in large audiences of families. Ballet Tucson normally dances these big works at Centennial Hall. But now that the UA is using Centennial for its new 1,200-student classes, the ballet had to relocate this season to the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall.

Ballet Tucson also danced its Nutcracker at the Music Hall at Christmas, and the theater "is working out well for us," Cabana says. "They're bending over backward to accommodate us."

The artistic director says the last year has been rough financially. Funding from the Tucson Pima Arts Council nearly dried up, and the Arizona Commission on the Arts' budget is in peril. The company recently sent out a special fundraising letter to its patrons.

"We've had to make major cuts," Cabana says. "It was scary this year. Luckily, I've got people (on the board) who understand that you can't cut the product."

And audiences have been supportive. The last concert series, Dance and Dessert, sold out.

"We're doing extremely well with individual ticket sales," she says.

Cabana is optimistic that the economy is beginning its slow climb back up, and the troupe has already announced a full season of four concerts for 2010-2011. A gala concert in the fall celebrating Ballet Tucson's 25th anniversary will be followed by The Nutcracker, Dance and Dessert and a springtime production of Swan Lake.

Financial difficulties "force you to dig deeper, to be more creative," Cabana says. "It's scary but exhilarating. I'm proud of what we've accomplished with more limited resources."