Class Dance

Young dancers from across the west, representing 20 different companies, are converging on Tucson this weekend

Linda Walker was frantic last week, and no wonder.

"I have 400 dancers coming to town, from 20 companies," she said by phone from the studios of Tucson Regional Ballet, where she is artistic director. In the background, dancers and teachers were clamoring for her attention, demanding her opinion of a piece of music or the cut of a costume. She held them at bay, temporarily.

"We have 98 classes scheduled over three days," she continued breathlessly, "and three public performances. Between now and festival night, it's a nightmare. It's a monster undertaking."

The monster in question is the Regional Dance America/Pacific Festival 2004, an annual event that this year happens to be landing right here in Tucson. The 20 young companies descending on the Old Pueblo this week are from all over the West, the majority from California, but with a good showing from Utah, Washington and Arizona. (Ballet Yuma joins Tucson Regional as Arizona representatives.)

Part of a national organization whose mission is to promote the work of small dance companies, the Pacific division is one of five in the nation. Each one sponsors an annual festival in its own region, but not all companies can join the group--they must be screened before winning membership.

"The companies have to audition to belong; they're rated for their technical abilities," explained Walker, who right now holds the title of president of the Pacific division. "These are all companies that are a bridge between a school and full company. The show is not just a school recital--it's more than that."

Among the visiting troupes are Crockett-Deane Ballet of Sacramento, Berkeley Ballet Theater, Columbia Dance Ensemble of Vancouver and Utah Regional Ballet.

Their dancers range from young teens to adults in their 20s, though troupes short of men are permitted to hire outside pros for partnering. They'll spend four days in town taking classes at the UA from teachers imported from around the country, as well as from UA ballet professors Jory Hancock and Melissa Lowe. The visiting faculty include Wes Chapman, a former American Ballet Theater dancer who now runs Alabama Ballet, and Phil Otto, a former principal with Pacific Northwest Ballet who is now artistic director of New Haven Ballet Company. (The classes are open only to conference participants, but others may watch the classes for a fee.)

"The 20 companies are primarily ballet," Walker noted, "but some are stronger in modern."

All three of the concerts--slated for the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall--are different. Each company gets only one shot on the stage, either on Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening, and performs just one piece, previously selected by an adjudicator. This year's judge was Jane Miller Gifford, a former ballerina who once danced with the likes of Edward Villella. Earlier this year, Gifford made a three-week tour of the West to visit the troupes in their home studios.

"Each company presented at least two pieces to the adjudicator, and she selected the piece to be performed," Walker explained. "She also did critiques, oral and written, and gave the companies ideas to improve."

Gifford chose the local team, Tucson Regional, for a coveted Saturday night slot.

"It's lovely piece, a musical theater piece," Walker said. "We presented contemporary and classical ballet, and she chose this. It's from All That Jazz. We got the rights to the movie. It's not our forte--classical ballet is--but she said, 'I want people to see this.'"

The work for 10 dancers, ages 14 to 27, is based on the Bob Fosse choreography. It features his trademark jazzy moves, and the hoofers wear classic Fosse black.

"They look great," Walker boasted.

Her company has belonged to Regional Dance America since 1994, and she sponsored the festival here once before, back in 1999.

"It's a very nice thing for Tucson," she noted. "This is the fifth largest conference in town this year. The Radisson downtown is full to bursting. Between the hotel, and eating and the buses and the university, we're bringing in a quarter of a million dollars."

Also on the boards this weekend is the final performance of ZUZI! Dance Company's spring modern dance concert, Wild Blooms. Opening last weekend at the ZUZI Theater in the Historic YWCA, 738 N. Fifth Ave., the show premiered Beth Braun's "Stand and Be Counted." The large group piece, divided into six sections, is a narrative based on the writing of Gabriella Schneider, a Tucsonan who survived the Holocaust. Particularly haunting were the passages about the carefree days before the war--dancers in cheerful flowered dresses stepped out to big band music, oblivious of what was to come--and the love duet between Schneider's parents, danced by Braun and Nathan Dryden.

Dryden also danced his "Hungry Ghost," a strong trapeze solo that will be seen at greater length in the NEW ARTiculations concert in June. An African-tinged work by Wendy Joy and Ojeya Cruz Banks, "Let Freedom Ring," was a joyful homage to Martin Luther King Jr.

The show begins at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 15; tickets cost $14, with student and senior tickets available. For information, call 629-0237.