Dance to the Big Beat

O-T-O starts season No. 21 with a little help from Odaiko Sonora

Dancing and drumming, separately and together, literally will make the biggest noise at the O-T-O Dance concert this weekend at the UA's Stevie Eller Theatre.

Odaiko Sonora, the troupe that's been introducing the town to the wild art of Japanese taiko drumming over the last few years, collaborates with the O-T-O dancers in the big, new Japanese-oriented piece.

As yet untitled, the brand-new five-section work lasts 18 minutes. It has eight modern dancers, four drummers, four drums, three giant butterfly nets, two star-crossed lovers, two dancing calligraphy figures, one red box and one sword. Not necessarily in that order.

"The dancers dance and drum," says Annie Bunker. "They're naturals at picking up drumming."

Sometimes, they even dance on top of the drums, says Bunker, who created most of the choreography. Charles Thompson, a former O-T-O regular who now lives in San Diego, returns for a guest appearance; a martial arts practitioner, he choreographed his own solo dance with a sword. And Karen Falkenstrom and Rome Hamner, founders of Odaiko Sonora, directed their parts. The other drummers are Zibi Turtle and Rebecca Bushner.

The work alternates between pure drumming and drumming paired with dance. Riffing on the music, the piece has numerous Japanese motifs. The dancers wear black, with traditional Obi sashes in bright red around their waists. In one section, dancers evoke Japanese written characters, and in another, they conjure up butterflies.

Attached to one another by elastic bands, wrist to ankle, dancers Nicole Sasala and Lena Lauer dance the calligraphic parts.

"Their dance is like the exactness of Japanese calligraphy," Bunker says. "It's precise. There's movement in the strokes of calligraphy, yet it's a static 2-D form. The section is like a page of Japanese calligraphy, shape, shape, shape across the stage."

Dancers Danielle Jones, Suki Keita and Nicole Stansbury wield the butterfly nets in another section, tracing calligraphic lines across the stage.

Stansbury also dances one of the doomed lovers, opposite Thompson.

"There's a sense of connection between the characters, but they're never able to come together," Bunker says. "They don't see each other in the space. There's a sense of longing and loss." And it's Stansbury who is burdened with the red box, which stands for both her "anchor" and her "baggage," Bunker says. "It's always with her."

Also in the piece are occasional O-T-Oer Kimi Eisele and apprentices Kiona Brown and Auriela Cohen. Bunker is so pleased with the piece, she may keep the partnership with Odaiko going. If grant funding comes through, the drummers may even go on tour with O-T-O to Ecuador next spring.

"We did do a collaboration with Karen and Rome last year," Bunker says. "This is the next installment. Who knows where it will go?"

The concert, New Decade/New Dances, marks the opening of the 21st season of the company formerly known as Orts. Offering up O-T-O's usual mix of modern dance on the floor and trapeze movement in the air, the two-hour show offers one other Bunker premiere. Her "Orchid's Embrace" is the final version of a Hawaiian work previously seen only as a work in progress.

Two older O-T-O works are also on the program: the trapeze duet "Ave Maria" by Robert Davidson, who first taught the Ortsers to take to the air, and "Mayatin," a big Amazon rain forest dance/video piece. Dancer Lauer also showcases her own choreography, "Weighting."

"Orchid's Embrace" celebrates the flowers in the island paradise where Bunker and her husband, Chuck Koesters, have bought a home and begun sprouting dance roots. (They taught a dance workshop in Hawaii in July.) Koesters provides video and soundscape for the piece, seen in a preliminary form in a May concert in Tucson.

The work combines trapeze dancing by Lauer and Sasala, floor work by Keita and Jones, and a finale on trapeze for all four. They're dressed in red bodysuits, and flowery overskirts dyed in blues, purples and yellows.

"It's about the sensuality and whirls and curves and spirals of orchids," Bunker says. "There are a lot of orchids in Hawaii."

Bunker envisions her Hawaiian suite as a three-part work. "Orchid" is part two; the third component, "Beneath the Waves," will make its debut in March.

"Mayatin," another Bunker/Koesters dance/video/music collaboration, has undergone some revisions since the troupe premiered it in Tucson three years ago.

"You put it away; you look at it again, and it speaks to you," Bunker explains. "You grow; you change. Chuck played with the video, too."

All nine dancers, including Bunker, dance in the 30-minute rainforest work, which sequentially conjures up rain, mud, mushrooms (and the spiritual journey they enable) and butterflies, and then the loss of these elements.

"First, there are beautiful images, then it goes to the reality of the destruction," Bunker says. Inspired by a trip that Koester, Bunker and their son Wrenn made to Ecuador some years ago, the piece takes its name from the word for "breath" in the language of the Achuar people of the Amazon.

"The rain forest is the world's lungs," Bunker notes, "and it's disappearing."

Bunker partners with Thompson in the lyrical "Ave Maria." Danced to music by the Chanticleer Ensemble, it has a "sense of a greater being looking over a common human. Its beauty lies in its simplicity."

Dancer Lauer reprises her "Weighting," a dance for seven first seen in a concert last year. Set to music by Philip Glass, it elaborates on the sign language movements for the words "there is no one here."

"Lena expanded it into gesture and dance movement," Bunker says. "The movement quality is weighted and heavy. It moves through the space nicely as people pair up and split off." Lauer herself dances, along with O-T-O regulars Sasala, Jones and Keita, and Eisele, Brown and Cohen.

O-T-O's 21st season will be heavy on collaborations. Assorted performance artists will join in for the improvisational warehouse show in December. In March, the dancers will take to the stage for their first concert in the Tucson Fox Theatre, which is scheduled to be restored by New Year's Eve. Going back to the Fox's movie origins, New York dance filmmaker Jodi Kaplan will intersperse her movies between the dances.

And in April, Ballet Tucson and O-T-O will stage a joint benefit concert to help the Fox buy a specialized Marley floor that's easy on dancers' feet.

"We're happy to help raise money for that beautiful theater," Bunker says.

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