Community and Cactus

Arizona's best and worst properties are recognized in two upcoming dance concerts

Arizona, good and bad, had a hand in shaping two major dance works that will take to Tucson stages this week.

The saguaro, the state's sentinel cactus, inspired Opus Cactus, an evening-length work of modern dance and illusion that MOMIX will bring to Centennial Hall on Wednesday. With its dancers transformed through gesture and light into cactuses and critters, it conjures up the lovely desert landscape.

"It uses various props, special lighting and movement to give people the sense they're walking through a desert botanical garden," says choreographer Moses Pendleton, artistic director and founder of MOMIX, an internationally known troupe. "There's no particular story, but maybe an idea of metamorphosis, transformation and surprise."

With its evocation of the Sonoran Desert, the work represents Arizona the Good.

A locally created modern dance, Re:Configurations, will explore lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships through movement and story this weekend. That's good, too, but the piece is being performed right now to counteract Proposition 107, the ballot initiative that would not only reiterate the existing ban on gay marriage, but also put an end to the legal recognition of domestic partnerships. That prop represents Arizona the Bad.

Tammy Rosen, co-artistic director of NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre, which is staging Re:Configurations, "had the idea for a show addressing same-sex couples and their relationships last spring, before the proposition came up," explains NEW ART dancer Kimi Eisele, "but it's timely now."

To be presented Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the ZUZI! Theatre in the Historic YWCA, the show will wrap gender-bending duets by seven professional Tucson choreographers around an episodic LGBT community piece.

"The workshop sections will be woven with the duets," Eisele says. "Sometimes, you'll see the entire cast on stage together. There's a loose narrative."

Performed by eight non-pro dancers, the community work was put together in an eight-week-long workshop led by Eisele and Jennifer Hoefle, a sociologist and ZUZI! dancer. Working through LGBT community center Wingspan, NEW ART found eight LGBT people willing to get up on stage and dance their own stories.

One transgendered performer will relate the tale of his transition from female to male. His partner, in turn, will give her take on the transformation. A gay teen will describe his hopes for his future.

"Originally, we were just going to work with youth, but I said, 'Let's open it up,'" Eisele explains.

Many of the choreographers, representing several local companies, reworked previous pieces that had conventional male-female couplings. Thom Lewis, FUNHOUSE co-artistic director, switched his "Lento" to female-female. The original duet takes a wry look at an unequal relationship, in which the man does the heavy lifting, literally and figuratively. Now danced by two women, April Greengard and Jamie Coracides, both NEW ART dancers, it begs the question of who will lift whom.

Besides upending gender roles in life, the new "Lento" and some of the others also "challenge the dance paradigm," the convention of men raising women aloft, Eisele notes. "People will see things they're not used to seeing on stage."

Other works include "Another Yourself," a trapeze duet for two women choreographed by Nanette Robinson, artistic director of ZUZI. Anton Smith, director of the Human Project, contributes a duet for two men. Nathan Dryden, a dancer who works with all the local modern companies, recasts a male duet seen in a NEW ART concert last June into a work for two women.

LeighAnn Rangel Sotomayor, co-artistic director of NEW ART, debuts a duet for two women, as does Greengard. Abigail Stage performs a solo about her own experiences.

"It's unparalleled to have all these different people, from different companies, on stage together," Eisele says.

MOMIX's Pendleton was lured to Arizona in the late 1990s by Michael Uthoff, then artistic director of Ballet Arizona.

"He wanted to know if I'd be interested in making something on his company on Native American themes," Pendleton says by phone from rural Connecticut, where MOMIX (pronounced MOE-mix) is based. An avid sunflower grower, Pendleton at first wanted to do a piece about a Lakota sunflower dance. But Arizona's stately saguaros soon changed his mind.

"As soon as I got there, the image of the sunflower easily morphed into this mystical, magical cactus," Pendleton says. "I started taking long walks in the desert. I was very inspired by that, and the light and the rocks and the air."

Pendleton made a 25-minute version of Opus Cactus for Ballet Arizona, and later extended it into the full-evening work that will come to Tucson next week. Divided into some 20 scenes, the dance has the performers slithering like sidewinders, leaping like lizards and tripping like tumbleweeds.

"I take bodies and combine them in ways that you lose the human identity and create some other forms," Pendleton says. "You take a man and a woman; you put the woman on top of the man, shade out the bottom, and they do look like cacti."

The music ranges from Bach to the Swingle Singers to Brian Eno. But Pendleton also looked to music from desert peoples as far-flung as the Arabs and the Aborigines.

"You get the feeling of desert in a global sense. It's not just Sonoran. There's a bit of Gobi in there."

Pendleton was one of the founders of Pilobolus, another Connecticut company that combines dance, gymnastics and comical forms in beautifully lighted spectacles. He left nine years later to start his own troupe, "just to break away. It's like the big-bang theory: It was time to expand. I wanted more artistic control."

The son of dairy farmers from Vermont's idyllic Northeast Kingdom, Pendleton named his eclectic company after a milk supplement for veal calves.

"I used to work with Momix (the supplement) when I was a farmhand to my father," he says. "It became the name of the company because of the idea of the mix, the hybridization. It's not a company of gymnasts or acrobats, but they do gymnastics, and they do acrobatics. They work with props. They have dance training. So it became a kind of mix of various styles to create this new theater."

MOMIX last stopped in Tucson last year, with a performance of Baseball, another work with an Arizona genesis. Pendleton was commissioned to compose the piece to celebrate a new spring training stadium in Arizona for the San Francisco Giants.

"We spent a couple of weeks training with the team," Pendleton remembers. "We owe a lot to Arizona--two complete programs."