Dance Smorgasbord: Ballet Tucson

Dance & Dessert serves up everything from Balanchine to blues

Ballet Tucson dancers (left to right) Shannon Quirk, Danielle Cesanek and Megan Steffens perform in Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations
Ballet Tucson dancers (left to right) Shannon Quirk, Danielle Cesanek and Megan Steffens perform in Balanchine’s Donizetti Variations

For the third time, Ballet Tucson has scored with the Balanchine Trust, winning permission to dance one of George Balanchine's revered neoclassical ballets.

"We're thrilled!" says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana.

Balanchine's 1960 Donizetti Variations, a sunny, fanciful work set in 19th century Italy, will be a highlight of the troupe's Dance & Dessert concert this weekend, which also premiers a new ballet by the troupe's Daniel Precup.

The trust officials, impressed with Ballet Tucson's performance of Balanchine's Serenade in 2016 and Walpurgisnacht Ballet in 2017, recommended that the troupe take on his even more difficult Donizetti Variations.

"It has pure classical virtuoso technique, with lots of technical elements," Cabana says. "It's really tough stuff."

The trust dispatched répétiteur Zippora Karz to Tucson to set the work on the dancers. A former soloist with New York City Ballet, Karz danced under Balanchine himself in the twilight of his career.

The bravura piece is now 59 years old but Karz has a way of imparting the "information in a fresh, up-to-date way," Cabana says. "She's very good at making the material accessible. She's very clear, very detail-oriented. The dancers absolutely loved working with her.

Created for a New York City Ballet salute to Italy, the high-speed work is danced to music from the Donizetti 1843 opera Don Sebastian de Portugal. The 11 dancers—a lead couple and three trios—spin through rapid-fire duets, solos and group pieces. Dressed in cheery peasant costumes—billowing blouses and knickers for the men, dresses and ribbons for the women—the dancers whip through uncountable Fouetté turns.

The double-cast work stars Danielle Cesanek and Vasily Boldin as the lead couple on Friday and Sunday, and Shannon Quirk and Isaac Hawkersmith handle both Saturday shows.

The two women are up-and-comers in the company, Cabana says. Normally, new dancers serve as apprentices for two years, but Cesanek, a recent grad of the Balanchine-based Indiana University dance program, moved up to company dancer after just serving just one year as an apprentice. And Quirk, a newcomer from Madison Ballet, Wisconsin, where she was a lead dancer, has quickly taken on important roles.

But Donizetti Variations is so dynamic, Cabana says, that all the performers are "very featured."

Giving everyone stage time is one of the goals of the annual Dance & Dessert concert: the program always offers up a long menu of eclectic dances that give each and every company member the chance to dance in multiple pieces. Nearly all the pieces are double-cast, offering double the opportunity.

"This is a show where the apprentices get a lot to do, and the corps dancers get featured," Cabana says.

This year's program has two longish works—the Balanchine is just shy of 25 minutes, and the Precup premier is 45 minutes. But the four short pieces go from start to finish in a breezy five minutes or less. And the dance styles are all across the choreographic map, from "performance art to tutus," Cabana says. The dancers get to upgrade their skills and the "audience enjoys the variety. They realize that dance is so much broader these days."

As an extra added attraction, after every performance the audience gets to nibble a smorgasbord of sweets provided by local pastry chefs.

Precup's brand-new ballet, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camellias), the concert opener, will be danced by the entire company of 33. Precup, who did a memorable star turn as the titular tango composer in the company's Viva Piazzolla!, based the work on the 1848 Alexandre Dumas novel of the same name.

Taking up all of Act One, the ballet tells the tragic story of a French courtesan who nobly gives up the man she loves to save his family's reputation. (The novel is also the inspiration for the Verdi opera La Traviata and for the many Camille plays and movies in English.) Prima Ballerina Jenna Johnson plays the woman, Marguerite, and Boldin and Hawkersmith alternate the role of her lover, Armand.

Set in Paris to music by Chopin, the piece has lush costumes, with the women dressed in period-piece ball gowns and the men in antique waistcoats and trousers.

Act Two features a quartet of short works in as many styles, leading up to the Balanchine grand finale.

UA prof Sam Watson, a Ballet Tucson regular, presents his "Something Blues," a comic duet about a man and a woman puzzling over what to do with the gentlemen's oversized suit. A performance art/contemporary dance to blues music, the piece will be dancers alternately by two couples, Sierra Sebastian and Jake Howard, and Aurora Ledesma and Kai Taro Kodama.

In a bow to classical ballet, Jenna Johnson dances the famous Russian solo from the 19th-century Swan Lake. Dressed in a traditional Russian costume, Johnson performs the precision movements by choreographer Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, to the beloved music of Tchaikovsky.

"Kibiki," a group work by assistant artistic director Chieko Imada, is a longtime staple of the company repertory, danced to the music of booming Japanese kodo drums.

A budding young choreographer and dancer, Violet Rose Arma, presents the work that won her a company choreography competition last fall. Still an apprentice, Arma created "A Convenient Contraposition," a "stark, sculptural contemporary ballet."

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