Dance From Down Under

FUNHOUSE returns to Reid Park for its annual gratis outdoor show

Nowadays, with war raging in Iraq, and hurricane lashing upon hurricane at home, we could be forgiven for thinking we're entering the end times. Set against today's backdrop of bad news, the early '90s seem downright peaceful.

But 1991 was anything but tranquil for the members of Tenth Street Danceworks, the now-defunct Tucson modern dance troupe.

While the United States was preparing to invade Iraq in the first Persian Gulf war, Tenth Street was bouncing around Asia on tour, working for Armed Forces Professional Entertainment, "what used to be called the USO," says Thom Lewis, a Tenth Streeter who's now with FUNHOUSE Movement Theater. "It was a strange time."

The dancers hop-scotched from Korea to the Philippines to Bali on U.S. military aircraft, the war mobilizations causing delays everywhere they went. When they finally arrived in Australia, a baggage handler delivered a mixed greeting to the already disoriented Lewis.

"Welcome to Australia, mate. Did you know your country is bombing the s--- out of Baghdad?"

Lewis's sense of dislocation, his extreme jet lag, the nonstop travel and the outbreak of war all came together in a dance piece he composed several years later. This weekend, that work, "Suite: Down Under," will be a highlight of FUNHOUSE's third annual Dance in the Park concert at Reid Park.

The free outdoor show, where audience members bring their own blankets and picnic on the grass, this year has a Southern Hemisphere theme. Besides the Australian work, the concert also features the Chilean-inspired "Pablo," choreographed by Lee Anne Hartley, co-founder with Lewis of FUNHOUSE. Visiting guest artists Canyon Movement Theater of Flagstaff perform three short modern pieces.

In "Suite: Down Under," six dancers play the original six Tenth Streeters traveling across Australia. Last performed in Tucson at FUNHOUSE's spring 2003 show at Leo Rich, the intricate modern-dance movements conjure up the both the journey and the destination.

"Time unwound for us in Australia," Lewis recalled. "We only did three shows in two weeks. And the landscape was so strange. It was like coming to Arizona from New Jersey, only with the volume turned up."

Dancers bounce along "sitting back to back, in a counterbalance, and there's lots of flipping upside down to show that they're down under." Dressed at first in travelers' clothes, the dancers gradually strip down to flesh-colored unitards painted in the reds and yellows of Aboriginal sand paintings.

Dancer Katie Rutterer does an "emu solo," and Jamie Jennette and Amy Barr dance a "walkabout looking for water." (All three women regularly dance with NEW ART.) Jack Wiley replaces Max Foster, a fine young dancer and FUNHOUSE regular who blew out a knee in rehearsal. Nicole Stansbury likewise went on the injured list. Rounding out the cast of six are Tucson newcomers Sukie Keita, a "nice dancer with a jazz ability," and Danielle Jones, whom Lewis saw at the ballet barre.

"They're both wonderful dancers," he said.

The 20-minute Australian piece ("short by my standards") has a musical backdrop of works by Enigma, King Crimson ("of course"), The Waterboys ("an obscure Irish rock group") and Penderecki's "Threnody for Victims of Hiroshima" ("it sounds like a house sliding off a hill").

Hartley's "Pablo" is a multi-generational piece inspired by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Also performed at Leo Rich in 2003, the lively work for nine dancers is set to world beat music with a South American flavor, Lewis said.

Given Chile's oppressive political history, the work has its melancholy moments. A grandmother, portrayed by choreographer Hartley, remembers her time in prison.

"She has sadness in her past. There's a sense of, 'We dance because we have pain.'"

But "Pablo" also has a sense of joy. Dancers wear colorful folkloric costumes, and mix vernacular Latin American dance with modern movement. And with multiple generations coming back together, the work celebrates the enduring strength of family.

Cast members include Lewis and Julia Miller as the parents, Sherry Mulholland and Yvonne Montoya as aunts, and Tavia, Leisel and Sabin Womack and Andrea Murray as the kids.

Canyon Movement makes a return engagement, following their first appearance with FUNHOUSE at last year's park show. Lewis said the two troupes mesh well and have had numerous exchanges. FUNHOUSE has been to Flagstaff twice as guest artists in Dancelebration.

Now in its fifth season, FUNHOUSE produces two shows a year and works intensively with young students. Collaborating with Tucson Unified School District in its Opening Minds Through the Arts program, FUNHOUSE performs for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, and does "lecture/demos to show how arts integration into the curriculum is important," Lewis said. "It's not a new idea."

But with schools devoting more time to test preparation, the arts need all the help they can get.

"Dance brings back a lot of the joy," Lewis said.

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