Tango Triumvirate

Three local arts groups have come together to create an ambitious tribute to Astor Piazzolla

Actor Robert Beltran, of Star Trek: Voyager and Big Love fame, landed in Tucson on Sunday.

Brian Chambouleyron, tango singer and guitarist, stepped off a plane Monday after traveling from Buenos Aires.

And later that day, Chambouleyron and Beltran were to go into full rehearsal for Passionately, Piazzolla! with the 28 dancers of Ballet Tucson, local guitarist Misael Barraza-Diaz, flutist Linda Doughty and actor Steve McKee.

By Tuesday, the whole ensemble was to be "in the theater," Mary Beth Cabana, artistic director of Ballet Tucson, said of getting ready to open Passionately, Piazzolla! this Friday, Feb. 15. "It's very complicated."

Indeed. Three Tucson arts groups—Ballet Tucson, Chamber Music PLUS and the Tucson Guitar Society—joined forces with the visiting artists to create and perform a brand-new, completely original dance-drama-musical.

Written by Harry Clark of Chamber Music PLUS, with choreography composed by Chieko Imada of Ballet Tucson, the work recounts the life of famed tango composer Astor Piazzolla. The story takes him from Argentina to Paris, where composer Nadia Boulanger urged him to forget his dreams of classical music and turn to tango, the music he was meant for.

"Piazzolla's music is so moving," said Imada, Ballet Tucson's assistant artistic director. "There's so much to it. I never got tired of it. I became a fan of his."

With the script to be written and dances to be composed, the complex project got under way a year ago. In rehearsals in recent weeks, as the production coalesced, local actor Robert Encila played Piazzolla, filling in for the absent Beltran, and the dancers tangoed to tapes of Chambouleyron singing and playing guitar.

The elaborate scheduling and subbing have paid off, Cabana said.

"It's a super-interesting production, a different kind of event. Our hard-core dance audience will be thoroughly entertained."

And lovers of music and drama will also be engaged, the Ballet Tucson team said in a joint interview.

"The dances move the narrative forward," Imada said, and the "script holds the whole thing together," Cabana declared.

The Piazzolla extravaganza is part of the first annual Tucson Desert Song Festival. A host of collaborative festival performances have been unspooling on multiple stages around town for the past week. This weekend, for instance, in addition to the tango live on stage at the Temple of Music and Art, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra is performing Verdi's Requiem at the TCC Music Hall with the help of four visiting singers. Thursday night, baritone Nathan Gunn, star of the Metropolitan, Chicago Lyric and San Francisco operas, will sing at the UA's Crowder Hall.

As the festival title suggests, live singing must grace each show. Cabana wasn't sure at first that a vocal project was right for Ballet Tucson. But she was familiar with Chamber Music PLUS' concert-dramas that depict the lives of famous composers in a mix of classical music and spoken word. So when someone suggested that the two groups tackle Piazzolla—whose music is so strongly linked to dance—she agreed, and "it kind of snowballed."

Clark wrote a script in two acts tracing Piazzolla's musical career and chronicling his three great loves; he also signed actor Beltran and musician Chambouleyron, a Frenchman now residing in Buenos Aires.

Imada was tapped because "this is perfect for her as a choreographer," Cabana said. "She's very contemporary and incorporates many dance forms. She worked like a dog on it. I'm really proud of what she created."

Imada composed an hour's worth of dances, a huge undertaking that she started last April. Some of the pieces are pure tango, inspired by the lusty dance moves that arose in the tough port of Buenos Aires late in the 19th century. (Others tend toward modern, jazz and even ballet, with dancers in pointe shoes.)

John Dahlstrand, founder of Sueños Tango, also contributed, providing a trio of classic tango duets that open the show. Dancer Daniel Precup, who alternates with Beltran in portraying Piazzolla—Precup doing the dancing parts, Beltran the spoken parts—also composed a dance or two.

Imada first tangoed years ago with 10th Street Danceworks, a now-defunct Tucson modern-dance company.

"I danced a tango solo set by Charlotte Adams of 10th Street," she said. "Then I performed that same piece with Ballet Tucson."

Three years ago, she choreographed her first pure tango piece, a duet for Precup and Jenna Johnson of Ballet Tucson set to music by Carlos Gardel, a famous tango composer who influenced Piazzolla. (Gardel's music is also in the show.)

Imada brushed up on tango technique last summer in a workshop led by Dahlstrand. The technical director for the UA School of Dance and the lighting designer for Ballet Tucson, Dahlstrand has been a tango maven and performer in Tucson for years.

"I got a lot of material from that class," Imada said, as well as insight into the art form. "A tango dancer doesn't show emotion. It's all in the steps."

Tango is the opposite of ballet, Cabana said: Ballet is "all uplift and turnout, and tango is plié and bent knees." But the dancers enjoyed taking on the challenge of the sensuous Argentine dance. Prima ballerina Johnson dances Piazzolla's first wife; the charismatic Deanna Doncsecz is his midlife passion; and new company member Alexandra Sermon plays the young wife of his late years, a woman he considered his muse, Imada said.

Act 1 of the musical sticks closely to traditional tango, but Act 2 is more "contemporary," Imada said. "I break out of that tango way."

The idea behind the shift to contemporary dance in Act 2 is to signal that Piazzolla's art remains vital, long after his death in 1992, Cabana said. "His music continues to be an inspiration."