Beauty in the Muck

ZUZI! Dance Company presents its first rock opera

Almost two years ago, Nanette Robinson of ZUZI! Dance Company received an unexpected visit from Hoshin Gupta, a UA professor of hydrology.

Science not being Robinson's usual line, she was puzzled that he sought her out. Gupta's research, after all, tends toward creating mathematical models that predict flash floods. But he's also a musician. He plays guitar, and since 2002, he's led a five-piece band, the aptly named Water on the Rocks. And he had written a rock opera. Now he wanted to collaborate with the modern-dance troupe on a music-and-dance production.

"It was really involved," recalls Robinson, ZUZI's artistic director. The company prides itself on free-ranging productions—from a full-scale Dr. Seuss show three years ago to its annual solstice concerts exploring myths and rituals—but a rock opera would be a ZUZI first. Robinson was intrigued.

"So I said, 'Why don't we start smaller?'" The professor agreed, and the choreographer set to work composing a dance to his song "With Force and Grace." The piece made it into the 2007 solstice show, danced by the ZUZI performers to live music by Gupta and the musicians in his band.

Robinson was so pleased with the result that she committed her company to collaborating with Gupta on the full rock opera. ZUZI got a grant of almost $2,000 from the Tucson Pima Arts Council to pay for the work's costs. While Gupta refined the music, Robinson and co-choreographer Beth Braun, ZUZI's associate artistic director, spent more than a year meeting and mapping out the dances.

Like a Lotus Resting in Fire: The Great Dance opens Friday night at the Historic YWCA for a five-show run this weekend.

"It's an exciting project," Robinson says. "It's very ambitious. The thing that's great is it's a totally Tucson venture."

Spoken-word poetry, songs, instrumental music, dances on the floor and dances on trapezes will be performed by 31 artists in the arts extravaganza.

The 28 dancers include ZUZI's 11 adult pros and an assortment of apprentices and kids in the youth company. The three musicians will be Gupta on guitar, Sally Withers on keyboard and Ironwood Ridge High School student Trevor Barroero ("a prodigy," Robinson calls him) on percussion and marimba. Gupta wrote the music and lyrics, but he shares credit with Withers for adapting the music for the show. And they both sing.

Two dancers, getting a short break from the nearly nonstop dancing, double as musicians during a musical interlude: Monica Weinheimer plays violin and Audrey Copeland cello.

"There's dance in every scene, to every song," Robinson says. "It's been a fantastic experience for me and Beth. We're on the same page with our vision. I'll say something, and she'll say, 'I was just thinking that.'"

The opera is about the "journey of life," Robinson says, and each individual's arrival at an understanding of his or her place in the universe. There are just three main characters. The Fool, danced by Greg Colburn, is a seeker who is "open to experience, who steps out on the edge. The Sorceress (Mirela Roza) holds a potion. The Fool thinks she has the secret of life."

But it turns out that the Sorceress is on a quest of her own for self-knowledge. Colburn's daughter, 7-year-old Sophie, plays the Girl Inside, representing the Sorceress' inner child.

The tale was inspired partly by Zen Buddhism—the busy Gupta also teaches Buddhist meditation—and partly by The Lord of the Rings, Robinson says. The Fool even carries a ring, which he believes will protect him.

Colburn is a longtime Tucson dancer, while Roza is a relative newcomer to town. A Brazilian, she formerly danced with the Municipal Theatre Ballet in Rio de Janeiro. She quit that gig to join the circus, Robinson says, and under the big top, she met her husband-to-be, an American musician. They came to Tucson together. "She's a beautiful classical dancer," Robinson says.

The ZUZI theater has been transformed for the occasion, with the curtains taken down and the windows exposed and ornamented with stained glass. Platforms on multiple levels provide space for the multiple performers and give the musicians their own niche right on stage. The stark platforms also provide a neutral setting for a story wrapped in myth and metaphor.

A giant lotus flower—4 feet across—sits right on the stage.

"The lotus is symbolic in many cultures," Robinson explains. "It's a beautiful flower that grows out of mud. It's a symbol of what can come out of the muck—beauty and spirituality."

The corps of dancers, including Braun and Robinson, represents "the mud that holds everything together." Costumed in glittery black, the ZUZI dancers are stand-ins for the earth, while the kids are dressed in the bright colors of flowers. For one song, "The Elegance of Ancient Days," the youth dancers and apprentices metamorphose into jungle creatures.

The title song, "Like a Lotus Resting in Fire," ends the evening, with "Mother Nature sing(ing) to the audience, invoking the power and beauty of nature, and all living things," according to Gupta's program notes.

The opera runs about an hour and 10 minutes, with a musical interlude subbing for a full-scale intermission. The venture is an early installment in ZUZI's new program to present live music as well as dance.

"We're starting a concert series," Robinson says excitedly. Marc Anthony Thompson and Paul Hepker, performing as Chocolate Genius, did a show on May 2. Company tech director Mark Miceli, whose day job is tech director at UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, "made our sound system concert-ready."

Now that Rogue Theatre has moved into the gym space on the north side of the Historic YWCA, adjoining the ZUZI Theater on the south side, Robinson is envisioning the sprawling building as a "home for music, dance and theater. We want more music in ZUZI, and there will be theater in the gym."