Decades of Dance

O-T-O Dance celebrates 20 years with 'Fall Flung Dances'

Nowadays, Tucson has at least four active modern-dance troupes, but 20 years ago, the city was suffering a dry spell.

Kadimah Dancers had disappeared when founder Frances Cohen decamped for Washington, D.C. Territory Dance Company dissolved after its founder fell seriously ill. But the city's empty stages were wide open for energetic young dancers like Annie Bunker, now artistic director of O-T-O Dance, and Thom Lewis, co-artistic director of FUNHOUSE movement theatre.

"I had a group of dancers ready to go," Bunker remembered last week. Briefly artistic director of Territory in its last months, she had already worked with its dancers. She knew Lewis because he had taken class with her, and performed in a concert together under Southwest Dance Collective.

Bunker kicked off a new troupe, Orts Theatre of Dance, along with founding members Daniel John and Lewis.

"I was 34 years old, with a lot of energy, looking for something to do," Lewis said. "We did some hefty partnering, Pilobolus-style, full-tilt."

The company has not only survived but thrived for 20 years, distinguishing itself in the last 10 in aerial dance. Along the way, Orts helped spawn a flotilla of other troupes, with Orts alumni going on to found NEW ARTiculations, FUNHOUSE movement theatre and the now-defunct Tenth Street Danceworks, which Lewis co-founded with fellow Orts dancer, Charlotte Adams. Several former Orts'ers dance in ZUZI! Dance Company.

Spiffed up since last year with a new name--O-T-O Dance--Bunker's company celebrates its anniversary this weekend with the concert Fall Flung Dances at the UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre.

"I can't believe we're going into our 20th year," Bunker marveled last week. "It flies by. Now Thom and I are the old-timers around here."

The concert takes a bit of sentimental journey through the troupe's history, reprising a popular 1993 collaboration with flutist R. Carlos Nakai, who will perform live, and featuring guest works by other favorite collaborators, including Lewis.

In honor of their early years, Lewis and Bunker will dance a duet extracted from a longer Lewis piece, "Half the Sky." Composed in 2002 for a concert by FUNHOUSE, the troupe Lewis now co-directs with Lee Anne Hartley, the work is a "husband-wife duet," Bunker said. Their relationship gets even more complicated with the addition of a child, played by Bunker's 12-year-old son, Wrenn.

"It is autobiographical," Lewis said. "The kid does represent a real kid. But we tweak the stories to make them better." The duet, which has a "ritualistic feel to it," is set to music by Shriekback and Radiohead.

Over the years, Nakai has collaborated with the company on four works, but 1993's "Totem," his first collaboration with Orts, is the piece most often requested by audience members. A big, 14-minute work in three parts for seven dancers, "It's based on the idea of trance and dream and ritual," Bunker said, "a sense of where one might travel in a state of deep consciousness."

Each performance of "Totem" has featured slightly different Nakai music, and at press time, Bunker and the Native American composer were still working out which music he would play this time around.

"We could end up with a tape (of past performances), or with him playing another instrument," accompanying his own tape, Bunker said. Whatever he ends up doing on "Totem," Nakai will play flute solos in the interludes between dances.

The work's seven dancers include three O-T-O newcomers: Amanda Hamp, from the University of Iowa, and Lena Lauer and Nicole Sasala, both from Ohio. Bunker restaged the work for the Stevie Eller, which she calls the "best theater for dance in Southern Arizona, maybe in all of Arizona."

Another reprise is "Tjurukurpa," a mixed-media work that features didgeridoo music and videos of the Australian outback, along with eight dancers moving across the stage on the floor and on trapezes through the air. For the work's debut last March, Australian Ash Dargan played his didgeridoo music live. This time around, the music will be on CD, recorded from the live performances last spring; Dargan's videos of his homeland will again serve as a backdrop for the dancers.

The concert goes up-to-the-minute in a guest hip-hop piece by Anton Smith, of the Tucson troupe The Human Project. UA grad Smith--versed in hip-hop, African and modern--teaches at the Orts school. "He's really talented," Bunker said. Smith's piece, "tri/R/archy," a trio for three men, is danced to the music of Amir "Prince Nemo" Miller and DJ Munkey.

Another guest choreographer, Gina Buntz, first met up with Bunker some 15 years ago, when she came to Tucson from New York and performed with Orts in a couple of concerts.

Now director of dance at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, Buntz returned to Tucson this past June to teach in the Orts summer dance workshop. While she was in town, she set a new trio, "Aras," on O-T-O dancers Lindsay Spilker, Nicole Stansbury and Hamp.

"Gina has a lot of experience with Haitian, Caribbean and African movement forms, along with modern technique," Bunker said. "This piece is more strongly modern," but with African elements. The dancers have a "lower center of gravity, as though they're moving out of the ground. It's very energetic."

The concert closes with a nod to the future, giving the stage to a work by Spilker, who has danced with the company just one year. A grad of the University of Georgia dance program, Spilker makes her Tucson choreographic debut with "Architectonics," a big work for seven dancers, most of them young and new to town. Among them are newcomer Suzanne Temple, a fresh grad of the competitive Indiana University ballet program, and writer Kimi Eisele, who doubles as a modern dancer.

Now that she's a fixture in her adopted hometown, Bunker is looking beyond Arizona's horizons. She's planning an intensive dance workshop next July in Hawaii, where she and her husband recently bought a home, with hopes of making the 10-day workshop an annual event. The company has picked up its touring in the last several years, traveling to places as far-flung as South America and Russia; now armed with a New York agent, Bunker wants to beef up the schedule even more. She'd like to bring the Australian piece, "Tjurukurpa," Down Under in the 2005-2006 season.

"We hope to have three or four tours in the next season," she said. "I like the way things are progressing and evolving."

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