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Original choreography set to live music energizes Ballet Tucson’s Rhythms of the Americas concert

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In the Ballet Tucson studios, seven young ballerinas are panting.

They've just finished an energetic rehearsal of "Guajira," a Latin American-inflected ballet debuting in the Rhythms of the Americas concert this weekend, and they're out of breath.

The choreographer, Daniel Precup, wants them to do the nine-minute dance one more time.

"Beautiful ladies, thank you for your patience," he says, as he gently orders them back to floor.

A second later—to the recorded strains of "Guajira," a traditional Spanish song reworked by composer and guitarist Adam del Monte—the dancers begin the sinuous dance again. They curve and turn, twisting their spines, extending their arms in graceful ports de bras, smiling and gesturing with their hands. Occasionally, a slight flamenco stomp interrupts their ballet grace.

"Try more to greet each other," Precup exhorts them, "like little birds on a Sunday morning."

The flirtatious dance is one of nine pieces in Precup's brand-new "Mosaico," a 45-minute work for 25 dancers that will serve as the concert's grand finale. Set to Spanish songs "with a South American feel," the work is "nine different little stories," Precup says. "It's about feelings, love, comedy and sometimes irony."

The dances range from group works of the likes of "Guijara" to solos, duets and trios. Ballet Tucson's lead dancers, Jenna Johnson and Isaiah Sumler, will dance one of the duets.

Yet "all of the dancers are dancing very well," Precup says, noting that many are new to the troupe this year. "Everybody's a star. I do not joke."

Precup himself used to be the troupe's male principal, and he still occasionally dances (he'll do a tango in another piece on the program), but he's enjoyed transitioning into choreography the last few years.

"You see dance from different angles," he says. "A dancer is an artist who interprets. A choreographer is an artist who creates."

The company dancers rehearsed "Mosaico" for weeks to recorded music, but at the concert they'll be performing to live music by del Monte on guitar and baritone singer Bernardo Bermudez. Precup says he'll be thrilled to have the musicians right on stage with the dancers.

"Live music keeps you alert," Precup says. "It keeps you alive."

The dancers and musicians were to come face to face at a rehearsal just five days before opening night. Until that moment, the collaboration was transacted through phone and e-mail.

"It's a transfiguration," Precups says, when the dancers begin moving to the variable rhythms of live music, and the musicians see sound translated into gesture.

A collaboration between Ballet Tucson and the Tucson Guitar Society, the Rhythms of the Americas concert is part of the Tucson Desert Song Festival. It comes on the third and final weekend of the annual song celebration, which has had guest singers performing in stages all over town, including last weekend's Arizona Opera production of Carmen. (This weekend also showcases The Broken Consort performing early music of the Americas at the UA's Holsclaw Hall on Friday and at Grace St. Paul's Church on Sunday. See www.tucsondesertsongfestival.org for more information.)

The Tucson Guitar Society recruited the two musicians for the Ballet Tucson concert. Guitarist del Monte, born in Israel but raised in southern Spain, is a well-known master of both flamenco and classical guitar. Now a professor at University of Southern California, he composed two of the nine "Mosaico" songs and plays on all of them.

Singer Bermudez, a young Venezuelan-born lyric baritone who now lives in the United States, is a regular on the opera circuit. He's sung lead roles in Carmen, The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro.

Besides playing in all of part two of the concert, the musicians will perform in two musical interludes in part one, between three ballets.

"Bailes de Noche," the first work on the program, is a three-part dance choreographed by Ballet Tucson's artistic director Mary Beth Cabana and Mia Hansen. It begins with "Sevillana," a flamenco-influenced work for four dancers, set to recorded music by the Gypsy Kings. The same band provides the soundtrack for the second section, "Ritmo," a dance that veers closer to ballet, but with "sexy moves," according to assistant artistic director Chieko Imada. The third part, "Ojos," set to a Shakira piece, is a jazz work tinged with flamenco.

Next up is Imada's "Pasión Argentina," a work she calls "tango ballet." Imada fell in love with tango when she choreographed "Passionately Piazzola," an evening-length dance about the master tango composer for an earlier collaboration with the Tucson Guitar Society. The work was performed at the 2013 Tucson Desert Song Festival. The new, shorter piece is "about a love-hate relationship," she says. "Tango music fits it." Precup will dance Imada's tango with his wife, prima ballerina Johnson.

Part one ends with "Bossa Nova Villa," Imada's version of the popular Brazilian dance, an explosive marriage of jazz and samba.

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