Across the Threshold 

ZUZI! Dance melds hip-hop, modern and aerial works for a wide-ranging "Eclectic Brew"

Question: What do you call it when you stir hip-hop into aerial dance?

Answer: An Eclectic Brew.

That's the title ZUZI! Dance Company has given its genre-jumping concert this weekend. A mix of choreographers will serve up tastes of everything from modern to aerial to hip-hop, and serve up multi-style concoctions that are somewhere in between.

Guest artist Eva Tessler, best known lately for her acting and directing at Borderlands Theater, blends modern with aerial in the dramatic full-company work "Umbral." And Anton Smith, artistic director of The Human Project troupe, adds hip-hop's down-to-the-ground moves to ZUZI's typical glides through the air.

"In aerial, there's a lot of stuff in unison," Smith says, "and hip-hop is very musical and rhythmic. I'm struggling to keep the same feeling of both. I'm loving it."

Smith is setting a mixed hip-hop/aerial piece on ZUZI's Many Limbs youth troupe, with ZUZI's Nanette Robinson and Alison Hart contributing some of the trapeze moves. Eight kids between 11 and 14 will perform "Keep Away," based on the classic schoolyard game.

"The kids look at me like, 'Do you actually want us to do that?'" Smith says. "And I say, 'Yes!' They love it."

But The Human Project's adult dancers will inject a piece, "Dedicated to the One," that's all Smith's own. Even so, "It's a hybrid dance--when hip-hop gets romantic," Smith explains. "You'll see four couples on stage, and how love progresses, from devotion to lust to comfort."

The work has no trapezes, but it segues into modern dance more than most of Smith's choreography.

"We experiment all the time. Usually, when we perform hip-hop, we feel the need to do big movement. In the ZUZI concert, we have the artistic license to do something different."

That's exactly what ZUZI is after when it lines up collaborations with outside choreographers, artistic director Robinson says. Both sides benefit from the cross-fertilization.

"We always want to honor our own company members' visions, but the collaborations bring in diversity," Robinson says. "This concert is very diverse. The Human Project is amazing."

Robinson says she's delighted to have Tessler as well. Tessler has never worked with ZUZI before, though the two women danced together awhile back with the Orts Theatre of Dance and the Zenith Dance Collective. For the last three years, Tessler has traveled nationally and even internationally with the Latina Dance Project, a dance/theater troupe that mixes movement and spoken word, and she teaches ballet at Tucson High Magnet School.

But she's missed staging dance in Tucson.

"I've been doing a lot of theater," she says. (She recently got kudos for directing School of the Americas at Borderlands.) "I felt like doing a dance piece without words."

Still, "Umbral"--Spanish for "threshold"--to be danced by eight ZUZI members and four apprentices, is a psychological drama. It's inspired in part by the emotional journey Tessler took after the sudden death more than 10 years ago of her husband, Daniel Nugent, a UA anthropologist, musician and playwright.

"The piece is about ideas, ways of feeling, about being able to transform and transcend," Tessler says. "It's like a renewal. It's scary and, at the same time, thrilling."

She composed the work as a gift for ZUZI's Beth Braun, whose husband, the musician Arthur Miscione, died just two years ago.

"I could relate to it," Tessler says. The piece is "about me and about her."

Braun dances the lead role, to "abstract" fragments of flamenco music. And this being ZUZI, there's also a circular trapeze in the piece. Tessler has been working on the trapeze since 2005, she says. "Parts of it fit the piece."

As if in response to "Umbral," Braun is performing "Life Emerging," a new work of her own. It's based on a text by the Indian spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti, Robinson says: "You must sing and dance and write poetry, and suffer and understand, for all of that is life." Joining Braun onstage are troupers Jennifer Hoefle, Audrey Copeland, Yumi Shirai, Sarah Small, Alison Hart and Karyn Reim.

Reim has also created a new dance for herself, "Life of a Flower," an aerial solo that substitutes a hammock for a trapeze.

"It's a great piece," Robinson says.

Two reprises balance out the menu. Hoefle's "Beyond Bodies," a multimedia dance for four that includes videography, is "about the media and the image of women's bodies," Robinson says. Hoefle herself dances, along with Braun, Robinson and Shirai.

Coincidentally, "Ladder of Light," a Robinson work, is also about transformation. First performed last December, it's an aerial work for six. ZUZI dancers Maria Saravilla, Scott Bird, Braun, Reim and Shirai do the honors, with Hart and Monica Weinheimer alternating the sixth role.

"Ladder of Light" adds one more flavor to Eclectic Brew: live music. Wendy Adams of Tucson composed instrumentals and lyrics, and singer Sally Withers and guitarist John Bormanis perform. With the company going strong after its 10th anniversary celebration in March, the musicians are no longer guest artists. They're regulars, Robinson says happily.

"We have our own ZUZI house band now."

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