Double Dance Duty

Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and Tucson's Artifact Dance Project perform on opposite ends of the University this weekend

Modern ballets by 20th-century legends Jerome Robbins and Twyla Tharp will be danced at the west end of the UA campus this weekend, and contemporary takes on the 1920s Charleston and Sugar Foot will hotfoot it on the east end.

Even better, the schedule works out so that dance fans can go to both concerts.

The acclaimed Joffrey Ballet of Chicago does the honors with the Robbins and Tharp works. One of the best and most innovative ballet troupes in the country, the Joffrey perform a single concert Sunday night at Centennial Hall, adding new contemporary ballets by Christopher Wheeldon and Stanton Welch to the classic choreography of the masters.

Tucson's own Artifact Dance Project, a modern dance company now in its fifth season, premieres a concert of all-new work in Speak Easy, a series of Roaring Twenties dance vignettes that fuse jazzy theatrical movement with contemporary. Live onstage, eight musicians perform brand-new period-inspired music. Speak Easy will get three airings, on Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Stevie Eller Dance Theatre.

What the two concerts have in common is a passion for American dance and music.

The Joffrey's British-born artistic director Ashley Wheater is calling his show of four separate dances American Legends.

"It's a varied program—that's a trademark of the Joffrey and me," he said last week by phone from the Joffrey's headquarters in Chicago's frozen Loop. As he spoke, chunks of ice were falling past his window and crashing to the ground. Not all the works are by Americans, but the show is bookended by Robbins and Tharp, "both such iconic American choreographers."

It opens with "Interplay," Robbins' 1945 work for eight dancers. A master of both Broadway and ballet, Robbins most famously choreographed the dances for West Side Story, bringing the elegance of classic dance to gang brawls.

"Interplay" has a "playful, jazzy, all-American vigor," Wheater said, "but it's a ballet. The women are on pointe." The music is by the late American composer Morton Gould. The Joffrey, which will mark its 60th anniversary in 2016, has had the piece in its repertory since 1972.

Tharp's 1982 "Nine Sinatra Songs" closes the show. Danced in Tucson by Tharp's own dancers perhaps a decade ago, it's a lovely work for 10 couples, with the women dancing in party dresses and high heels to the smoky crooning of "Ol' Blue Eyes." The company first performed the piece in February 2013.

The two works in between are by an Englishman and an Australian, but each has strong American connections. Christopher Wheeldon, the Brit, is a highly regarded choreographer who's worked extensively in the United States. The Joffrey tackles his "After the Rain (pas de deux)," composed for the New York City Ballet in 2005. "It's really beautiful," Wheater said, "just a man and a woman stripped almost bare. It's the most amazing transformative choreography Chris has ever done."

The Australian, Stanton Welch, is artistic director of the Houston Ballet. His new work, "Son of Chamber Symphony," was commissioned by the Joffrey, to a score by American John Adams.

"It's a beautiful piece of contemporary music that's like a deconstruction of a classical symphony," Wheater said. The dance, likewise, is "classical ballet turned inside out. It's very challenging for everybody. It's definitely ballet, but highly athletic ballet, driven by amazing music."

Divided into three parts, the work is danced by 16—drawn from the ranks of Joffrey's 40 full-time dancers. Tucsonans will get to see them all. "We bring them all on tour," Wheater said. "If you're going to be a company, you have to dance."

Over at Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, Tucson's ambitious Artifact deploys a sizable team of 13 professional dancers in the evening-length Speak Easy. Ashley Bowman, Artifact co-artistic director, choreographed no fewer than 26 dances after immersing herself in video research into the historic styles of the 1920s.

"I watched 50 videos on dance," she said, sounding only a little exhausted. But Bowman's compositions are not exact replicas. "The dances are jazzy and theatrical, balanced with contemporary, and very athletic," she said.

Linking into her movement, composer Chris Black of Tucson's ChamberLab "took a period approach," evoking the sounds of Cab Calloway and his contemporaries. Threepenny Opera by Bertold Brecht was a "huge inspiration," Bowman said. "There's lots of singing." Another Tucson musician, Naïm Amor, added "more cerebral, dreamlike pieces." Artifact has always had a commitment to performing only with live music; this time eight musicians will be onstage, sitting on risers just above the dancers.

Speak Easy is loosely structured around the true-life story of a flapper-journalist in Roaring Twenties New York. New Yorker columnist Lois Long covered speakeasies for the brand-new magazine, using the pen name "Lipstick."

"She wrote about the social scene of the 1920s," Bowman said. "She was a Vassar girl and a flapper girl, and Harold Ross was her boss."

Fellow co-artistic director Claire Hancock and Bowman tracked down Long's stories; voiceover recordings made of her text will be played during the concert.

Company dancer Shelley Hawkins (formerly Steigerwald) dances the part of Lois Long; Hawkins was the Cat and Tweedledum in last year's I Wonder if My Name Is Alice. Hancock, who danced Alice, this time around is Texas Guinan, another real-life 1920s character; she was an entrepreneur who ran speakeasies and "launched the careers of famous vaudeville performers," Bowman said.

Jillian Wereb portrays Bee Jackson, a famous Charleston dancer known as Miss Fancy Feet. Bowman, who stayed out of the dancing in Alice, which she also choreographed, this time takes a part in the corps.

The concert is divided into three sections, corresponding with Lois Lang's visits to three speakeasies. "But it's not a story or narrative," Bowman said. "It's more vignettes that make a statement about a decade."

The women's costumes are free-flowing flapper dresses—comfortable and sexy—that epitomize the freewheeling spirit of the age. One piece deliberately uses costumes to demonstrate the transition from the strictures that literally hemmed women in in earlier generations.

"Claire, Jillian and I are in Victorian dresses," Bowman said, "and we strip them down to loose dresses."

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