Day of the Dead Revisited

Ballet Tucson deploys Calexico music and Lawrence Lee art in ambitious Spirit Garden

Calexico's haunting border-lands music has provided the soundtrack for movies, TV shows and even a play, but it's never been used in a dance performance.

Until now.

Ballet Tucson's ambitious new Día de los Muertos ballet, Spirit Garden, is set to taped Calexico instrumentals.

"I love the idea of combining music and dance," says Joey Burns of Calexico, "especially here in Tucson, at home."

Calexico didn't compose new music for this dance, Burns points out; previously recorded music has been collaged into a new taped soundtrack. Even so, he's delighted.

"One of the appealing aspects of music is doing projects with other creative artists," he says. "This is the first time we've done dance. I'm excited."

The 40-minute Spirit Garden will debut at the troupe's season-opening concert this weekend at the Temple of Music and Art, which will also offer up two other dance works.

The ballet will be an extravaganza of 53 dancers—28 adult pros and 25 kids, many of them dressed as skeletons in colorful folkloric garb—performing against a backdrop of dramatic digital paintings by Tucson artist Lawrence Lee. And a variety of evocative sound effects, from mission bells to a heartbeat to the hooting of an owl, will be mixed in with Calexico's horns, piano and guitars.

"We're thrilled to be working with Calexico," says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana, who co-created the dance with assistant artistic director Chieko Imada. "Their instrumentals are so interestingly done."

The band's fans will be intrigued, she adds, because the music that the ballet troupe selected is all lesser-known Calexico.

The music-dance collaboration came about with help of Jim Brady, Cabana's husband and a well-known sound engineer in town. He went to Calexico with a proposal for the troupe to use selections from the band's existing works in a new dance.

Once Ballet Tucson got the band's go-ahead, Imada immersed herself in the complete works of Calexico. She had put together a nine-scene story for the ballet, and she wanted sounds that complimented her Day of the Dead tale about the co-mingling of life and death.

"I spent six months listening to their music," she says. "It really blew my mind. I knew them primarily as a singing band. I didn't expect the instrumental music."

Calexico ok'd the final tape, Burns says, and Brady did some editing to make the parts work as a whole. The sounds range from cheerful horn blasts, to melancholy keyboards to celebratory oom-pah-pah.

The choreographers are also delighted to have enlisted artist Lee. Known primarily for shaman paintings and landscapes, Lee explored new digital genres for his kinetic paintings of skeletons and cemeteries, and of angels and marigolds. The images, which darken and lighten from night to day and back again with the aid of computer programs, are essential to telling the story, Cabana says.

"The whole ballet is very dependent on Lawrence's projections," Cabana says. "He's a really big piece of this and he did great stuff."

Lee also designed some set pieces, including an ofrenda, or altar, to which the characters deliver gifts of food and flowers. The story features picnics in a bright cemetery, a flood that takes several lives, a happy parade of brides and grooms, both living and dead, and a paradise of angels and blooms.

Though the ballet deals with death, it's suitable for children, Cabana says. The transition from earth to heaven is treated light-heartedly and even comically, she notes, and the tale ends with the happy reunion of a family in paradise.

"It's like a fairy tale," Imada adds. "It's not scary."

Despite the skeleton costumes and the skull masks on the dancers, Spirit Garden is a ballet and the female performers dance in toe shoes. One scene, with skeletons welcoming a newly dead woman (Megan Steffens) to the spirit world, even invokes the classic Giselle, a romantic ballet from 1841.

Connolly Strombeck dances the husband of Steffens' character; Jennifer Martin plays a Catrina: and Mauricio Vergara dances a vigorous Aztec god, leaping across the stage to the pounding of Calexico drums.

Each autumn, Ballet Tucson puts on a spooky narrative ballet; past productions have ranged from Dracula to last year's steampunk Jekyll and Hyde.

Spirit Garden gets its inspiration closer to home, Imada and Cabana say.

"We wanted an edgy take on Día de los Muertos," Imada says, "something contemporary, not traditional."

They took their inspiration not only from the Mexican Day of the Dead, but from Tucson's homegrown All Souls Procession, an eclectic affair that's part mourning ritual and part art party. They love the Old Pueblo angle.

"It's pretty cool," Cabana says. "Lawrence is nationally known and Calexico is internationally known, but they're all from Tucson, all local."

For his part, Burns says, "I'm honored to be part of something that touches on Tucson's identity."

Another premiere on the concert program, Perseus & Andromeda, tells a story from Greek mythology. Choreographed by company ballet master Daniel Precup, this ancient tale is an epic account of danger and rescue. The Princess Andromeda is lashed to a rock in the sea, destined to be killed by a monster, in order to appease the wrath of the god Poseidon. Perseus, needless to say, steps in.

The new ballet, complete with sea creatures and battles, stars the company's prima ballerina Jenna Johnson, who's making a comeback after giving birth to a daughter this summer.

Also on the schedule: a reprise of Red, White & Blue, an exuberant group work by Imada and Cabana, featuring the entire troupe doing precision dancing.