Serving Serenade

Ballet Tucson dances pivotal Balanchine work in this weekend’s concerts

Just in time for its 30th anniversary, Ballet Tucson has scored what baseball fans might call a home run, and basketball lovers a slam dunk. To balletomanes, it's a great leap forward.

For the first time, the local pro troupe has won permission from the George Balanchine Trust to perform a dance by the legendary choreographer. Even better, the piece, which the company is dancing at this weekend's Dance & Dessert concerts, is his pivotal "Serenade."

"This is an incredibly big deal," says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana, who danced "Serenade" during her professional career at Cleveland Ballet and Ballet Oakland. Not all troupes meet the stringent requirements of the Trust, she says, and it's a mark of Ballet Tucson's quality that the troupe got the go-ahead. "This is really an important step for us."

The 1934 "plotless ballet" for some 26 dancers was the first work the legendary Balanchine created in the United States. Trained in 19th century classical dance in his native Russia, Balanchine determined to bring ballet into the 20th century once he arrived in New York. His 30-minute "Serenade," performed to Tchaikovsky's Serenade in C Major for String Orchestra, was a prime example of his new "neoclassical" style. It stripped away Old World narrative and simultaneously stepped up dance technique.

"Balanchine takes classical ballet technique to an extreme," Cabana says. "There's more turnout, musicality, quickness, and brightness. It's full of leaps and jumps. And the footwork is extremely deliberate and fast."

The Balanchine Trust sent stager Zippora Karz to teach "Serenade" to the company dancers. A former soloist with Balanchine's New York City Ballet, Karz was one of the last dancers he hired before his death in 1983. Now based in Los Angeles, Karz came to Tucson to select the cast and spent eight grueling days here teaching the dancers the challenging neoclassical movements.

After she went back to California, the troupe emailed videos of rehearsals, and "Zippora gave us long-distance corrections," Cabana says. She was to return in the last days before opening night opening to make final tweaks.

"Zippora was pleased with our dancers," Cabana says. "They were up to the challenge."

The popular annual Dance & Dessert concert always offers up a cornucopia of short dances by a variety of choreographers—plus an array of desserts after the show. While "Serenade" will take up the concert's entire second half, the first half includes a comical modern work by Sam Watson, a traditional ballet pas de deux from Le Corsaire, and full-cast numbers organized around the Cole Porter songbook and Benny Goodman.

Dancer Deanna Doncsecz, who retires with this concert, debuts her quartet "Fem." A dramatic dancer and able comedian who's been with the company more than a dozen years, Donscecz "had a good, long run with us," Cabana says. "Her departure will be a big loss.".