Dance Animals

Tucson Regional fully stages the ballet classic 'Peter and the Wolf'

The last time Tucson Regional Ballet staged the ballet classic Peter and the Wolf, the dancers had to perform on a narrow strip at the front of the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall stage.

Granted, they gave up the prime stage space for a good reason. The musicians of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra were occupying it, giving a full orchestral rendering of the familiar Prokofiev score.

"We did it as guests of the TSO," explains the ballet's artistic director, Linda Walker. "Mayor Bob Walkup was the narrator. We were in a limited space," on a platform atop the orchestra pit.

Four years later, the troupe is turning out a very different Peter, this one fully staged. For this weekend's concerts, what they're losing in music--the TSO's live music will give way to CDs--they're gaining in dance. A full contingent of 35 youthful ballerinas will replace the skeleton crew of the previous show, and the dancers will pirouette across the whole of the dance-friendly TCC Leo Rich Theater stage.

"It's traditionally done with just the main characters--Peter, his grandfather, the wolf," Walker says, "but this one is fully staged."

A professional guest artist, Francisco Gella, a longtime dancer with Philadanco and other troupes, has been imported to perform with the advanced dancers in the troupe's school, Academy of Ballet. He'll take on the all-important part of the wolf. The troupe's top teen dancers, including Brittany DeGrofft and Paetia Mechler, will take on the lead roles.

Art Almquist, who runs the well-regarded drama program at Tucson High Magnet School and acts with local theater companies from Invisible Theatre to Beowulf Alley, will step into the mayor's shoes as the narrator and grandfather.

"Art moves about and tells the story, then he goes into character as the grandfather," Walker says. "He's entrancing."

A painted backdrop will conjure up the dark Russian forest where the tale is set, and a tree stump 11 feet in diameter will stand on the stage. Costumed dancers will use their bodies to evoke features of the landscape.

Seven dancers, perched on the stump, "become the branches of the tree," Walker explains, and "six lovely ballerinas," dressed in yellow and green, will suggest the undulating meadow. Eight will dance the part of the pond, and three will become the garden wall, including the swinging gate that Peter escapes through.

"The dancers become the set," Walker says.

Sheri Giller, the company's new co-artistic director, gets credit for the choreography, which is completely different from that of the previous concert, Walker says.

Sergei Prokofiev composed the music and libretto in 1936, but Peter and the Wolf was first staged as a ballet in 1940, at American Ballet Theatre in New York. It tells the tale of a naughty boy who turns into a hero.

"Peter's not to go beyond the gate, because the wolf could get him," Walker says. "But he disobeys his grandfather," and with the help of assorted friendly animals manages to capture the wolf alive. The playful score is designed to teach children the sounds of the orchestra instruments, with the oboe representing the duck, the flute a bird, the French horn the wolf, and so on.

The cat is portrayed by DeGrofft, a talented high schooler who studies with American Ballet Theatre in the summers and danced a sensuous Native American Queen in the company's Southwest Nutcracker last December. Mechler, another lovely dancer, studied at San Francisco Ballet last summer and danced the lead of Maria in Nutcracker. She takes the part of the bird.

Solana Temple, a 13-year-old girl who is a competitive runner, tackles the trouser role of Peter, dressed in Russian-style balloon pants, an embroidered slip-on shirt and a sash. Jessica Holland is the duck, and Kendra Hunley the lead hunter.

"We have new costumes for the wolf, grandfather, the hunters and the meadow," Walker says. "They have a traditional Russian look."

The 35-minute story ballet will be performed after intermission. Suitable for kids as well as their parents, it's a "fun piece," Walker says. "We've had a couple of adults watching it, and they really enjoyed it."

Before the Russian tale takes over the stage, the troupe will showcase young dancers from its school in a series of six short pieces.

"We have a selection of contemporary and classical ballet," Walker says. "They're all new pieces."

Guest artist Gella, a dancer who doubles as a choreographer, has composed works for Pennsylvania Ballet, Philadanco, California Ballet and others. For this concert, he's created "For Lola," a dance for seven set to music by Christophe Beck. Gella will partner with DeGrofft in the featured duet.

Gella also appears in "Concerto," another new work by Giller set to music by Edvard Grieg. DeGrofft and Mechler also take on lead roles, with eight ballerinas from the senior company dancing in the corps.

"He's so good with the kids," Walker says of Gella. "He's dedicated to his work and his art. His kindness just radiates."

Holland, the dancer who plays the duck in Peter, turns choreographer in "Mujer," a piece she composed to music by Bond. Nine dancers from the senior company do the dancing honors. A high school student, Holland also designed the costumes.

"She also did a piece last year," Walker says. "We got such a good response that she's done another one."

Giller's "Reflections," set to music by Billy Joel, introduces four new members of the senior company. Walker created "Romantique" for some young dancers in the junior company, along with a few more experienced seniors. To the strains of Strauss, the classical piece will be danced by 10 ballerinas in "pink, lovely costumes," Walker says.

The youngest dancers in the concert, ages 10, 11 and 12, are "junior apprentices getting ready to come into the company," Walker says. Sixteen of them will appear in "Hungarian Peanuts," choreographed by Giller and re-staged by Walker.

Set to a compilation of music, "it's very entertaining," Walker says.

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