Bizet and Ballet

Ballet Tucson presents a version of Carmen with a dance twist

Mezzo-soprano Janara Kellerman will be dressed like a ballet dancer—almost—at her next performance of Carmen.

That's because the Carmen she'll sing for is a ballet staging of the beloved French opera by Bizet. Ballet Tucson's prima ballerina, Jenna Johnson, will use pas de deux and arabesques to portray the bewitching gypsy girl. But it's Kellerman who will sing the doomed Carmen's most beloved arias, the "Habanera," the "Seguidilla" and the Cards song.

The two artists portraying the same woman on the same stage at the Temple of Music and Art will be "costumed similarly," says Ballet Tucson artistic director Mary Beth Cabana. Both will wear a fiery red, to evoke the opera's Spanish setting. Johnson will be in a scanty leotard while Kellerman will wear a sleek balletlike dress, simplified from the usual ornate opera wear.

Baritone Larry Alexander will also sing in Carmen, and he and Kellerman will be accompanied by live music from pianist Woan Ching Lim, cellist Rebecca Bartelt and percussionist Rick Puzza. Add the full ballet company of 23 dancers to those five musicians and you get a staging challenge.

"It's a lot of work but it's interesting to incorporate live singers into ballet," Cabana says, "and it's exciting for the dancers."

The imaginative dance-opera production will be presented this weekend along with two other dances in Ballet Tucson's Winter Concert, one of the closing events of the second annual Tucson Desert Song Festival. The three-week long affair has had visiting singers jetting into Tucson to sing on local stages with nearly every classical music group in town. Just for example, this Friday and Sunday guest singers join the Tucson Symphony Orchestra for a concert of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust. But Ballet Tucson's concert is the only one in the festival to combine dance with full-throated opera singing.

"Ballet adds variety to the festival," Cabana says.

The three works in the concert are all danced to French music, in keeping with the festival's celebration of la chanson française. Frenchman Georges Bizet composed the music for Carmen, which premiered in Paris in 1875. With its bullfighters and gypsies, it's a Spanish story set in Seville, but it's sung in French. (The production combines the live Carmen excerpts with recorded music.)

Singer Don Sheppard will perform popular French songs in Danses à la Française. And Daphnis and Chloé, the concert opener, will be performed to a recording of the original score by Frenchman Maurice Ravel. (It's the only one of the three dances without live music.)

The dancers get to show off different skills throughout the concert, which showcases three movement styles.

"Danses à la Française is theater dance," Cabana says. "Daphnis and Chloé is a neoclassical ballet. And Carmen is contemporary ballet with a Spanish flair."

For his Carmen, choreographer Daniel Precup, company ballet master, cut the full-length opera down to a half-hour dance. Even so, the shortened work manages to recount the tragic tale of a fatal love triangle. Stuart Lauer dances Don José, Carmen's jealous lover, and Cory Fragoso-Gram is his rival, the bullfighter Escamillo.

Most Carmen productions are heavy with swirling gypsy skirts, but ballerina Johnson suggested minimalist costumes to give the ballet a modern look. All red and black, the sleek, stripped-down dancewear complements Precup's contemporary choreography. And instead of an operatic mise en scène, the modernist backdrop will be a simple projection of photos.

Daphnis and Chloé is a "reinterpretation" of a ballet created in 1912 by the famed Russian choreographer Michel Fokine. Mark Schneider, Ballet Tucson's former resident choreographer, re-created it for the company, giving it a fresh look and shortening it to 32 minutes. More traditional than Precup's Carmen, it will feature Greek costumes hand-painted by Schneider himself.

Based on a Greek pastoral from the second century, Daphnis and Chloé recounts the complicated love story of a young goatherd and shepherdess. Before their happy ending, the besotted young lovers are thwarted by pillaging pirates and driven apart by jealousy and revenge. Michelle Sigl dances Chloé and Benjamin Tucker is Daphnis. The entire company again joins in, playing assorted nymphs; Kyle Petersen is the god Pan.

Despite its classical story, Daphnis has a distinguished French history. Like Carmen, it had its debut in Paris. French composer Ravel was commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev to write the score, and the work was danced by the legendary Ballets Russes.

For "Danses à la Française," assistant artistic director Chieko Imada created four dances to four popular French songs of the 1950s and '60s. Singer Sheppard will croon such tunes as "Et Maintenant?" and "Matin de Carnaval" in French.

The songs are "loosely linked as a love story," Cabana says, this one set on the streets of Paris. The French capital is conjured by undulating cloth in the red, white and blue of the French flag, and les boulevards are full of strolling shoppers and at least one bicyclist.

Deanna Doncsecz and Precup dance the not-so-devoted lovers. Their passion is cut short by Stuart Lauer as an assertive French flirt.

The Temple of Music and Art is not normally used for dance, and the troupe had to work around its smallish size, Cabana says. "We love the Temple, but we have to be creative in using the space."

Cabana and company learned the lay of the land last year. They danced at the Temple as part of the first Tucson Desert Song Festival, collaborating with the now-defunct Chamber Music Plus on Passionately Piazzolla, a tribute to the masterly tango composer. Music lovers turned up for the live performance of Piazzolla's tango tunes, and dance fans came for the sultry tango moves.

Cabana is hoping for a similar crossover audience this year, with opera fanatics reeled in by the live music—and by the translation of one of the world's most popular operas into ballet.

"The company looks great," Cabana says. "It's going to be a great show."