Birds and Bugs and Whales, Oh My!

ZUZI! celebrates nature in 'Primavera' dance concert

Nanette Robinson had no intention of creating a full-length themed concert for this weekend's season finale for her ZUZI! Dance Company.

"We had such a big year," she says, including celebrating the troupe's 15th anniversary with a gala concert in the winter as well as staging the evening-long Blood and Gold concert about Frieda Kahlo in the fall. She decided the final show would be a loose collection of unrelated pieces choreographed by the company dancers.

But once their dances were ready, Robinson says, she realized that they mostly conjured springtime themes of "planting seeds, beginnings and endings." Some of the dances were metaphorically about personal growth, but others were flat-out about nature. About flowers, bugs and birds.

So artistic director Robinson named the concert Primavera, the Spanish word for spring. Opening Friday, April 27, the concert of modern and aerial dance showcases 10 dances by nine choreographers. Singer-guitarist Pablo Peregrina opens with live music and Bubba Fass plays congas on one number.

Even before Primavera starts, the audience will be greeted by flowers in the lobby. They'll be strewn across the lobby floor in designs that mix the blooms with sand.

"It's an Indian folk art called rangoli," Robinson says. Created by the company members, the rangoli works will offer "a sacred welcoming and a celebration of springtime."

Likewise, flowers are a big part of the opening dance. "Pájaro"—Spanish for "bird"—will begin with the two dancers scattering white rose petals on the stage.

Jamey Garner, who choreographed the duet and performs it with Sky Dominguez, says her work combines the "traditions of ballet, modern and post-modern dance with elements of mysticism and spirituality." On a trip to South America, she says, "I researched a South American-based spirituality that came with the slaves and mixed in with Catholicism." Called umbanda or candomble, the religion also draws on indigenous practices.

Garner will wear a blue dress and Dominguez a white one in honor of the colors associated with Orixa, a female deity linked with the ocean. Fass, who will play congas live at the Saturday night show, will dress in white. (His drumming will be heard on tape at the Friday and Sunday concerts.)

And the title "Pájaro?" For Garner it stands for freedom and flight.

The bird dance isn't the only one on the program associated with animals: whales and bugs also get their hour (or minutes) upon the stage. The seasonally appropriate "Jeweled Bugs" was created by dancer Elizabeth Breck.

She dresses its six dancers in "spectacular costumes, colorful and jeweled," Robinson says, representing the "dragonfly, hummingbird, butterfly and bugs in general."

Well-known Tucson dancer Greg Colburn does a guest turn in the bug dance, performing with company members Garner, Dominguez, Sara Stewart, Mechelle Lee Tunstall and Breck herself. They dance their insect tribute to cheerful tunes, among them "Feeling Good" by the normally somber Nina Simone, whose lyrics praise "dragonflies out in the sun, butterflies having fun."

Robinson got the inspiration for her dance "Whale Light" from a series of dreams she had about the mighty creature of the deep.

"Whales symbolize well-being," she says.

The dancers will fly through the air on four trapezes, evoking not only birds flying over the sea, but whales "floating, breeching, jumping and lob-tailing," Robinson says.

Dressed in glittery black dresses shot with gold, the dancers perform to "Grooved Wahl," a recorded cello piece by Lisa Walker that incorporates the vocalizations of humpback whales. (The dancers vocalize too.) A video backdrop that runs throughout shows whales in close-up careening through the Caribbean.

A community dancer, Shar Aslaksen, not a member of the troupe, will stand onstage dressed in a seashell costume. And Robinson will open the work with a recital of a poem about whales by Mary Oliver.

ZUZI! is known for its aerial work, and "Whale Light" is one of four pieces in the show danced in the air, via trapezes and a variety of other contraptions.

Carie Schneider dances on trapeze in her solo "Remembering How to Forget," created after the recent deaths of two of her grandparents. Schneider uses "slow, physical, deliberate" movements in a work set to music by Orenda Fink.

Dancer Dominguez uses a sling, the stage floor and a trapeze as metaphors for three major transitions in her life in her solo "I Am Awake Now," danced to an excerpt from "Driving up the Country" by Robert Een.

The eight middle-schoolers in Many Limbs, the ZUZI! youth company, take to the air on what Robinson calls a "circular, horizontal apparatus" and also dance on the floor in "Fluid Dynamics." Choreographed by Schneider in collaboration with the young dancers, the dance has movements that "echo the circularity of the hoop" in the flying machine, Robinson says.

Most of the works in the concert are premieres, but the nine high-schoolers in the Apprentice Company dance a piece that made its debut in the Big Range Dance Festival in Houston in 2008. For Primavera, choreographer Tunstall reset her piece "What Others Made" on the teens. Its "slow partnering" movements, per Robinson, are danced to Radiohead.

A new work by Tunstall, "4," is about her experiences with talk therapy. Danced on a set that looks like a counselor's office—couch, armchair, lamp—it's a floor work danced by six dancers, including Tunstall, Breck, Dominguez, Stewart, Garner and Molly Stack, a talented apprentice moved up the ranks for this piece. Along with some spoken word and acting, "4" dance will have a soundscape of music by John Murphy, James Newton Howard and the Cocteau Twins.

Two of the high school dancers, Amelia Marsh and Galyn Sumida-Ross, composed their duet "I Know I'll Stay" to honor their long friendship, Robinson says. The two students, who dance with Beth Braun at University High School, set their piece to "Sun" by Two Door Cinema Club.

Sara Stewart's "Driftwood," for five female dancers, is a sequel to her work from last fall, "Harder Than It Needs to Be." Both ponder the challenges women face "negotiating in a man's world," Robinson says. Wearing the same costumes as last time—black business suits—the women dance in overlapping trios to "Neverland" by Takenobu Mitsuyoshi.

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