Death-Defying Feet

Ballet Arizona Survives Financial Disaster And Returns To Tucson.

THANKS TO AN eleventh-hour infusion of cash, Ballet Arizona not only still exists but will actually be putting its dancers on a Tucson stage this weekend.

"We've been through a very precarious time," new artistic director Ib Andersen said by telephone last week. "It's miraculous. Thank God we do have a company. We got tremendous support from the community."

The Autumn concert at the UA's Centennial Hall this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, featuring works by George Balanchine, Paul Taylor and Andersen himself, will be the company's first appearance in some time in the ballet-starved Old Pueblo. (Coincidentally, Ballet Tucson, the town's new professional company, also is dancing this weekend. See "Balanchine Bonanza" for details.)

Last year, when the Phoenix-based company met financial catastrophe, it summarily canceled its Tucson season with the exception of the traditional December Nutcracker. In the chaos, previous artistic director Michael Uthoff and executive director Grey Montague both departed. Then this summer, shortly after the board hired Andersen, a former New York City Ballet principal dancer, the board announced that continuing money woes would soon force the company to shut down.

On September 22, board president Gwen Hillis said that the shows would go on after all, thanks to donations by Phoenix philanthropists in the amount of $360,000 and a benefit performance by actor/dancer Patrick Swayze. The company is not yet on firm financial footing, Hillis cautioned, but Andersen said he nevertheless "sort of insisted" on a concert for Tucson. Ballet Arizona, the official state company, has never built as strong an audience in Tucson as it has in Phoenix, but Andersen said he's game to try.

"Tucson is an arts city," he reasoned. "If people come to this program, they'll want to come back for more."

Despite months of uncertainty in the company, most of the dancers have stayed on, Andersen said. Fans will find on stage such favorites as Qisheng Zhang and Yen-Li Chen-Zhang, the husband and wife who danced Romeo and Juliet here two seasons ago. Other longtime dancers include Bonnie Rich, Gina Firicano, Judith Adee and Luis Torres. Popular dancer Andrew Needhammer has retired to teaching.

The eclectic program Andersen selected for the first concert travels back and forth through 20th-century dance. The Balanchine and Taylor works are "two very strong, very different ballets. 'Serenade' is one of the old-time masterpieces, and 'Company B' is a contemporary masterpiece. In the middle is a premiere by me."

Balanchine's 1934 "Serenade" was the first dance the classically trained Russian composed in America. The dual national influences show in the 30-minute work, which was performed by Ballet Arizona during the Uthoff era as well. It's danced by a bevy of 20 ballerinas to Old World music--Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings--but it's a sleek abstraction stripped of narrative.

"It's one of the most performed ballets," Andersen said. "It follows in the tradition of Giselle and Les Sylphides, but it's a very American ballet, with an American energy."

Andersen's own piece, a series of three pas de deux danced to Prokofiev waltzes, premiered in Phoenix last weekend. A Dane who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet from the age of 7 and joined Balanchine at New York City Ballet in 1980 at the age of 25, Andersen has worked as a choreographer since he stopped dancing in 1990. His new work is danced by "three couples, and each pas de deux represents different kinds of relationships."

"Company B," Taylor's 1991 crowd pleaser, is a half-hour work danced by a baker's dozen to the songs of the Andrews Sisters. Taylor's own troupe performed "Company B" here on its last visit to Centennial Hall. The piece is high-spirited, but Andersen said it's more than a feel-good work.

"Paul Taylor is not just one thing. This is not just all joy. He's what good choreographers are--deep. This is layered. It's about the '40s during the war. It's an amazing piece. It definitely leaves you singing, but it's also about the dark side of what war does."

Ballet Arizona performs Autumn at the UA's Centennial Hall at 8 p.m. Saturday, October 21, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, October 22. Tickets are $16 to $38; half-price discounts are offered to students and children 12 and under, and 10 percent discounts to seniors and groups. For tickets call the box office at 621-3341 or Ballet Arizona at 1-888-3BALLET.
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