Big Apple Invasion

New York dance luminaries come to town, both to support Ballet Tucson's opener and take the stage at Centennial Hall

At the age of just 35, Christopher Wheeldon is probably the most acclaimed ballet choreographer working today.

Now the head of his own company, Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company, the Englishman was resident choreographer at top-ranking New York City Ballet for seven years. His lush works have been lavishly praised, with The New York Times opining that he "honored ballet's traditions while expanding its boundaries." His Swan Lake for Pennsylvania Ballet, which I saw in Philadelphia, was so painterly that it seemed to re-create a Degas canvas.

But as far as Ballet Tucson's Mary-Beth Cabana knows, Wheeldon's work has not yet been seen in Arizona. That will change this weekend, at the local ballet company's gala season premiere.

Two dancers imported from New York City Ballet, Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans, will dance Wheeldon's contemporary duet "Liturgy," to music by Arvo Pârt. (See below for more New York dancing in Tucson this week.)

"There's a lot of excitement in the ranks," Cabana says. With the performance of "Liturgy," Ballet Tucson beats out Phoenix's Ballet Arizona by six months in the Wheeldon sweepstakes. Ballet Arizona will perform his "Polyphonia" in a concert next April.

Ballet Tucson staged the coup via Kristina Fernandez Rask, a Tucsonan and former NYCB ballerina who trained as a child with Cabana at Ballet Arts. The Tucson troupe likes to import stars for its season-opening gala, and Rask volunteered to contact Kowroski, a longtime friend. Kowroski agreed to come, tapped Evans as her partner and arranged with Wheeldon for the pair to dance the duet.

Kowroski is "tall, beautiful, with long lines," Cabana says. "She's one of the top-ranking ballerinas at New York City Ballet."

Ballet Tucson will give three separate performances this weekend at Stevie Eller; unfortunately, "Liturgy" will be danced only at the Friday-night gala. All three concerts will feature a reprise of Ballet Tucson's 2004 story ballet Dracula, an excerpt from the classical Raymonda (from 1898) and the premiere of Cabana's "Red, White and Blue!," a star-spangled work set to the marches of John Philip Sousa.

"I've been thinking about a military, patriotic piece," Cabana says. "Red, White and Blue" seemed apt for the election season, but it's lighthearted and happy, unlike the increasingly vitriolic election campaign. Meredith Dulaney and Stuart Lauer dance the leads in the full-company work, with Dulaney portraying the Statue of Liberty. Assistant artistic director Chieko Imada and executive director Jeffrey Graham Hughes also contributed choreography.

Former company choreographer Mark Schneider reworked his Dracula a bit for its third airing, and tightened up the dramatic action. Right in time for Halloween, the spooky story of the Transylvanian bloodsucker has kids from Ballet Arts school filling the stage as bats, ghouls and shadows. The action moves from Eastern Europe, where gypsies cavort outside Dracula's castle, to a beach complete with strollers on the sea and a ship wrecked off the coast, and on to England.

Daniel Precup, tall and craggy and dark, is Dracula, and Jenna Johnson is the hapless object of his affections. Deanna Doncsecz gets a big scene as Lucy, and Lauer is the lawyer who fatally goes to Dracula's castle to conduct a real-estate transaction.

The Russian choreographer Petipa set his Raymonda in medieval Hungary, but the story is slight, serving mostly a pretext for bravura dancing. The "Variations" Ballet Tucson will perform are Hungarian-flavored divertissements from the wedding in Act III, with the ballerinas swathed in "brand-new, beautiful tutus. They're white and decorated in gray and gold.

"It's a classical ballet for 16" danced to music by Alexander Glazunov, Cabana says. "It's based on Petipa's choreography. Chieko took the lead (on Ballet Tucson's version); I staged a lot of the variations, and Jeffrey staged the men's."

Johnson dances the female lead, while Precup alternates with Lauer on the male. Two of this season's new hires, Cory Gram and Ryland Early, showcase their skills in duets with Samantha Chang and Dulaney, respectively.

"There's a big entrance, and an adagio section that features three couples with the entire cast on stage," Cabana says. "There are solos and duets, and solos for the lead male and female," Cabana says. "It introduces our dancers to the audience. Everybody has their moment."

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company of New York City, celebrating its 40th anniversary season, steps out onto the Centennial Hall stage Tuesday night.

A Juilliard grad out of Chicago and a one-time student of José Limón and Alvin Ailey, Lubovitch has had one of the most eclectic of dance careers. He choreographs modern works for his own troupe (more than 100 at last count) and others, including American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. But he's also created ice-dancing routines for Olympians and showbiz works for Broadway.

Some critics complain that his dances are too feel-good--a New York Times writer this month dissed them as "pretty," "romantic" and "popular"--while others lionize his lyricism and musicality. Dance magazine once lauded him as "among the world's most musical makers of dance."

Lubovitch showed some early minimalist works at Dance Theater Workshop in New York this month, but he gives Tucson a more characteristic program: three big group works set to classical music.

"Concerto Six Twenty-Two," from 1986, is a three-parter danced to Mozart. The brand-new "Jangle: Four Hungarian Dances" is accompanied by Bartók rhapsodies. "Dvorák Serenade," from 2007, not surprisingly, is set to Dvorák's Serenade in E major for strings.

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