Seen in the Stars

Ballet Tucson kicks off another season with a new ballet, a take on vampires and the Cole Porter songbook

High in the winter sky, along about February, stargazers can get a good view of Gemini, the constellation that's said to represent twin brothers holding hands.

The two brightest stars in Gemini (Latin for "twins") are Castor and Pollux, named for the devoted brothers of Greek myth.

The twins' story is "one of the most well-known legends in Europe," says Daniel Precup, ballet master of Ballet Tucson and a native of Romania. "I'm surprised that people here don't know it."

Precup aims to change that with his new ballet, "Gemini." It's one of three big group ballets kicking off Ballet Tucson's 10th professional season in a series of five concerts this weekend. A spooky revival of "Dracula" is also on the program, along with a brand-new work that celebrates the Cole Porter songbook. At the gala Friday night, visiting artist Margaret Mullin of Pacific Northwest Ballet will do a solo to one of Porter's songs.

"Gemini" is set in ancient Greece, and the full complement of 20 dancers will be armed with plenty of Grecian shields, swords, helmets and leather skirts. Precup, who has ventured into contemporary dance in recent works, returns to neoclassical ballet in this 30-minute dance, with the women warriors on pointe.

Precup says he compressed the story to make it understandable to an American audience. In the complicated myth, the twins Castor and Pollux were both born to the same human mother, Leda, but Pollux was fathered by the god Zeus, and Castor by Leda's human husband. Thus Castor was mortal and Pollux was immortal; even so, the brothers were utterly devoted to each other throughout life.

When Castor was killed in battle and consigned to the underworld, Pollux begged Zeus to allow him to share his immortality with his beloved twin. Zeus consented, and sent the pair skyward to live on as stars.

"To translate it into ballet is very hard work," Precup says jokingly. "I appreciate my colleagues for all the effort."

Those colleagues include Cory Gram, a former Ballet Tucson dancer who has worked with Artifact Dance Project in recent years. Artistic director Mary Beth Cabana invited him to return to the company this season, and he's taking on the plum part of Castor. The current company leading man, Stuart Lauer, will be his twin, Pollux. Precup's wife, prima ballerina Jenna Johnson, will dance the Queen of the Amazons.

"There are amazing fight scenes," Precup says. "It's very energetic, very athletic." And between the battles, "There's a little bit of a love story."

"Dracula" is an even bigger work. Created for the company by Mark Schneider some years ago, the company last danced it just before Halloween 2008. This time around, the 45-minute story ballet is danced by all 22 members of the professional troupe and some 30 students from the Ballet Arts school.

The kids, Cabana says, "play bats and ghouls."

Precup, a fine dramatic actor who last season danced the devil in Agnes deMille's "Three Virgins and a Devil" as well as Quasimodo in Schneider's take on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, dances the part of the scary Count Dracula.

"He's perfect for this kind of stuff," Cabana says. "Not only in his stature and looks (he's tall and lean with a curtain of black hair), but in his years of experience in the theater."

Johnson dances Nina, Deanna Doncsecz is Lucy and Ben Tucker plays the hapless Jonathan, the London solicitor who fatefully travels to Transylvania to help the mysterious count buy property in England. Amid all the vampire drama, adapted from Bram Stoker's novel, there's a lovely seaside scene choreographed by Cabana, with gentlemen in turn-of-the-century striped bathing suits strolling the beach with ladies in white dresses and parasols.

The new Cole Porter work, sandwiched between concert opener "Dracula" and closer "Gemini," comes courtesy of assistant artistic director Chieko Imada and Cabana. Conceived by Cabana and choreographed by Imada, the seven-section work, "Under My Skin," will be performed by the entire company of 22 dancers, who will step out to the beloved songs in a series of group dances, solos, duets and trios.

At the Friday night gala only, guest artist Mullin will do her solo to a rendition of "It's De-Lovely" by Ella Fitzgerald. Mullin has been a member of the high-flying Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle since 2009, dancing a number of lead roles. In 2011, she won the Princess Grace Dance Fellowship Award and she has had her choreography reviewed in The New York Times. A native Tucsonan, she trained with Cabana and Imada at Ballet Arts from the time she first donned a tiny leotard.

Imada selected "It's De-Lovely" for Mullin because it starts out slow and then picks up speed, she said, a sequence that matches the dancer's gifts.

"Maggie moves so beautifully slowly," Imado says, "and she's fabulous fast."

Inspired by her dip into tango dancing last winter, when she choreographed the full-length tango show Passionately Piazzolla!, Imado reveled in making dances for "Under My Skin" that combined "contemporary dance, pointe work, modern, ballet and 1930s movement."

She also sought renditions of the Porter songs sung by a wide variety of artists. She's using "Too Darn Hot" sung by Mel Tormé, "Night and Day" by U2 and "Every Time We Say Goodbye" by Annie Lennox. Fresh from "Dracula," dancer Doncsecz does the solo honors to Lennox's vocals, and Tucker is the only male among "six ladies" in "Too Darn Hot," Imada says.

There's also some heat coming from the costumes, Cabana adds. They're bright pink and black, and designed to "show a lot of skin."

The concert was crafted to show off something more: the strengths of the company and its dancers. Formed 28 years ago as Ballet Arts, the troupe turned pro 10 years ago, metamorphosing into Ballet Tucson and hiring paid dancers.

Cabana is particularly proud of Mullin's successful career, but she's also proud that she's been able to keep Tucson's only professional ballet company going for a decade. The company weathered some lean years during the recession, but danced on.

"What we really want to do," she says, "is to showcase the talent that comes from Tucson."

Ballet Tucson Season Opener

Friday, Oct. 11, Opening Night Gala. Food, music and silent auction at 6:30 p.m., concert at 8, with guest appearance by Margaret Mullins of Pacific Northwest Ballet

2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 12; and 1 and 5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 13

Stevie Eller Dance Theatre

1737 E. University Blvd., on the UA campus

$32 regular performances; $80 opening night


Daniel Precup and Jenna Johnson in Dracula.

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