Dance All-Pros

As some stars take temporary leave, another star helps kick off Ballet Tucson's new season

Ballet Tucson has lost its ballet master and mistress--temporarily--to the top troupe from whence they came.

Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, artistic associates at the local company for the past year, have returned to American Ballet Theatre in New York this fall. As reported (and pictured) in The New York Times last month, the spouses are staging the classic 1975 Antony Tudor ballet The Leaves Are Fading on ABT's current dancers.

The pair frequently worked with Tudor in his glory days at ABT, a company the British-born choreographer helped found.

"They danced a lot of Tudor," says Ballet Tucson artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana. "He chose Amanda for a lot of his dances."

She's philosophical about the couple's temporary absence, though it means they won't perform in this weekend's gala season opener, as they did last year.

"We knew this would happen," Cabana says. "They want to spend as much of their time as they can here," but other companies will likely continue to clamor for their services. Still, it's worth it to Cabana to accommodate them.

After all, the pair will be back in January, fresh from working with some of the world's top dancers, to help train the local company's own young performers. And McKerrow and Gardner have also brought work by Tudor back to the desert. Last winter, they staged his Continuo on Ballet Tucson. This March, it will be Little Improvisations.

And Cabana has another superstar in the wings for the gala. Patricia Barker, the longtime prima ballerina for Pacific Northwest Ballet, another top-ranked troupe, will fly in to perform two solos at the Saturday night show at Stevie Eller.

"She's a well-known figure," Cabana says. "We wanted someone of the caliber of Amanda and John."

Barker retired from the Seattle company at the end of last season and has been working in Europe. In Tucson, she'll dance two pieces of her own choosing.

"She's been in Bratislava (Slovakia), preparing there on her own. One of the solos is a new piece by a Bratislavan choreographer. And we talked about the possibility of a Balanchine excerpt. She's a really good dancer. Whatever she does will be good."

Barker will appear only at the Saturday-night gala, which kicks off the company's fourth year as a pro operation with paid dancers. The Saturday concert will also include three pieces from the Ballet Tucson repertory: Les Patineurs, Les Sylphides and Firebird Suite. Those three works will repeat at the two Sunday-afternoon shows.

A star at the PNB for 25 years, Barker has been praised by Seattle critic R.M. Campbell for her "flexible body, beautiful proportions, sheer strength (and) a high-gloss technique."

A dozen or more years ago, Barker danced the title role in a traveling PNB production of Cinderella in Tucson, winning universal praise. She's a Balanchine-oriented dancer, so Cabana invited her as a counterbalance to the Tudor-steeped McKerrow and Gardner. (Balanchine was associated with New York City Ballet, rival of ABT.)

For the remainder of the concert, Cabana decided to offer up old favorites from the Ballet Tucson repertory.

"Some we haven't done so long, it's like visiting old friends," she said in her office last week, as Stravinsky's Firebird music wafted in from the rehearsal studio across the hall. "It's really neat that on this program, we have Les Sylphides, which is romantic; Les Patineurs, a lighthearted divertissement; and Firebird Suite, which has some social significance."

Les Sylphides opens all three concerts. Originally choreographed by the legendary Michel Fokine, and danced to music by Chopin, it premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1909. Fokine set it on ABT back in the 1940s.

"It's not really a story," Cabana says. "It's about the realization of a poet's dream. The poet is dancing in woodland glade."

A ballet blanc--white ballet--the work deploys 15 female sylphs in long white skirts and floral headbands dancing in a plain "black box." Daniel Precup is the dreamy poet, dressed in a poetic 19th-century loose shirt and floppy bowtie. Jenna Johnson, Meredith Dulaney and Emily Conelly dance the female leads.

Les Patineurs (the ice skaters) is "charming," Cabana says. Dancers in Victorian skating costumes glide through a rink graced by arches and a gazebo; a pine forest is painted on the backdrop.

"Socks over their pointe shoes give the idea of skates," Cabana said.

First choreographed in 1937 by Frederick Ashton, to music by Meyerbeer, "Les Patineurs" was reworked in the 1970s by Anne Huffington, Cabana said. Huffington staged it on Ballet Arts in the 1990s, but Cabana and associate artistic director Chieko Imada reset it.

The entertaining movements mimic ice skating. Isaac Sharratt and Michael Dunsmore alternate as a boy who is a skating virtuoso, full of "energy and tricks." Stuart Lauer and Dulaney, and Daniel Escudero and Samantha Chang, take turns as a couple skating a romantic pas de deux.

Firebird Suite is a contemporary takeoff on the 1910 Stravinsky work. Composed by former company choreographer Mark Schneider, "It's about the conflict between man and machine, a nuclear holocaust and the rebirth of a new species," Cabana said.

Six machine-line "cyborgs," costumed in futuristic camouflage, battle six human ninjas. Thirteen children from the Ballet Arts school play the prisoners, in a set of hanging steel girders, rusted and twisted, that "look like they've been through the war.

"There are warring factions. Everybody is wiped out. But it ends on an optimistic note: There's a hope of rebirth."

This season, the company is 20 dancers strong, most of them returnees from previous years. An apprentice and a principal dancer from last year have departed, but two new apprentices have signed on, and a number of last year's apprentices have moved up in rank to company members. After tweaking the troupe roster the first couple of years, Cabana said it's satisfying to work with the same dancers over time.

She's especially pleased that a number of her now-pro dancers--company members Celina Ginn and Megan Terry and apprentice Erica Alvarado--came through her school.

"I trained all of them. I'm very proud of that aspect. The circle of training is completed. Kids can stay in Tucson and perform."

Cabana says the company is continuing to build its audience, even traveling a bit out of town to win new fans. The troupe started performing at SaddleBrooke retirement community near Catalina last year, and on Nov. 30, they will take to the road to reprise Les Patineurs there and also stage Act Two of The Nutcracker.

"They're sophisticated people," she said. "They've seen Suzanne Farrell. I had a sense that they understood what we we're doing."

Tucson has a number of ballet troupes, but Ballet Tucson is the only one that's all-pro. Cabana said one of her tasks is to help people "understand the difference between professional level ballet and everything else. I'm proud of what we've accomplished."