Dracula in Concert

Ballet Tucson goes pro in a big way with a double bill of Halloween-related performances

Ten days before Halloween, Dracula dropped into a midtown dance studio.

Tall, chisel-faced and black-haired, the dapper vampire moved elegantly through ballet steps, curving his arms, then his torso, as he glided across the studio to music by Shostakovich. No one was fleeing him, though. His long, sharp teeth weren't in, for one, and for another, everybody else in the room knew that--as authentic as he looked--he was not a blood-sucking count.

In real life, he's Daniel Precup, one of 11 dancers freshly hired by Ballet Tucson, the city's newly professional ballet company. Long an arm of the respected Ballet Arts school, the company has now moved up a rung, paying a team of adult dancers for a 25-week season. Not only does Precup play the vampire in the troupe's debut gala this weekend--a double bill of Dracula and Giselle, Act II--he's even from Romania. Transylvania, to be precise.

"We had to arrange for a visa for him," said artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana, giddy with what she called "happy stress" just eight days before the opening. "And with all the security issues nowadays, the Department of Homeland Security was involved."

No word on whether the nation's watchdogs were particularly concerned about a covert vampire crossing borders in the witching season. Luckily, Precup had already worked in the United States as a dancer with Oakland Ballet, and he got through the red tape relatively easily, arriving in town just two weeks behind the rest of the new dancers. Two of them, César Rubio and Deanna Doncsecz, both UA grads, were already in Tucson, but the rest arrived from places as far-flung as New York.

"It's a good group," said resident choreographer Mark Schneider, after taking them through a rehearsal of Dracula, a brand-new 50-minute work he composed himself. "All the dancers are individuals, but they blend together really well."

Tucsonans will get their first look at the new lineup in a Friday-night concert and at two matinees on Sunday at the UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, where they will dance along with advanced students and children from the school. The newcomers will take the leads in all three performances of Dracula, and in the two Giselles on Sunday, but at the opening-night gala some imported ballet stars do the Giselle honors.

Amanda McKerrow of American Ballet Theatre plays the title role, a peasant maiden, while John Gardner, formerly with ABT, dances the part of Hilarion, the solid gameskeeper who truly loves Giselle. McKerrow and Gardner have often appeared in Ballet Tucson's Nutcrackers, but the third guest artist is new to Tucson audiences. Osmay Molina, a principal with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, dances Albrecht, the naughty noble who trifles with Giselle.

Cabana said she was delighted to get stars of this trio's caliber for the company's kick- off. Cubans like Molina, trained by dance legend Alicia Alonso, she added, "dominate ballet nowadays."

Tucson has not had a resident professional ballet troupe since the 1980s, when the city's Arizona Dance Theatre merged with two other companies to form Ballet Arizona, Cabana said, and moved to Phoenix. Times are tough for troupes all over the country now, with such companies as the Oakland Ballet--which yielded both Jenna Johnson and Precup to Tucson--suspending operations. But Cabana has long dreamed of starting up a company.

"This is our 19th year (at Ballet Arts)," she said. "We've been working toward this. It was our goal the whole time."

Cabana and her board have grown the enterprise carefully. Only after sold-out houses at Pima College proved that their audience had grown did they move the annual Nutcracker into the much larger Centennial Hall four years ago. She gradually added other full-length productions, such as Midsummer Night's Dream and Cinderella, and began inviting stars. Just this year, for the first time, a live orchestra will accompany Nutcracker along with live singers from the Tucson Boys Chorus.

A strong board of directors is "helping raise money," she said. Linda Ronstadt typically lends her voice and presence to the annual fund-raising Sugar Plum Tea. The nonprofit has also won grant money from the Tucson Pima Arts Council and the Arizona Commission on the Arts, and help from local merchants. She thinks that a city of Tucson's size, approaching 1 million, is ready to add a ballet company to its resident theater troupes, opera and symphony.

"Only eight to 11 cities have all these major arts organizations," she said. "That's an exciting part of all this."

When the company won the Halloween weekend slot at Stevie Eller for its debut, Cabana decided to go with an entertaining supernatural theme. She opted for just Act II of Giselle, an otherworldly sequence in which the young woman, dead of a broken heart, joins other jilted brides in a ghostly afterlife. Dressed as brides in ethereal white, the so-called Wilis dance dances of vengeance with the hapless Albrecht on the receiving end.

"It's beautiful," Cabana said. "The dresses are transparent tulle."

No fewer than 16 women in romantic costumes fill the stage, performing gorgeous group movements. Just four men are in it, including the two guest stars. Assistant artistic director Chieko Imada staged the work. If the 1841 Giselle is the very definition of a classic, well-loved ballet, the brand-new Dracula will be fun, a tiny bit scary and just this side of camp, Cabana said.

Based on the Bram Stoker novel, Schneider's Dracula features some 50 dancers, including little kids careening around as bats. Episodes will include a colorful gypsy scene, wherein the gypsies try to warn off a naïve visitor to Dracula's castle, and a blood-curdling Vampire Ball.

"It's a one-act ballet, with eight to 10 scenes," Cabana said. "A British actor did a voice-over narrative for us of excerpts from the diary in the novel."

Costume designer Madelene Maxwell has put the dancers in turn-of-the-last-century duds, with the men in frock coats and bowler hats and the women in high-necked long dresses. The vampire ball will show off a dozen full-skirted long sequined dresses in red--and black versions for Dracula's vampire wives.

"Everybody is in Dracula," Cabana said. "It gives a lot of work for everyone. Jenna Johnson partners with Daniel. The brides are professionals and advanced students. This doesn't mean fewer opportunities for our students. We're raising the bar for everyone."