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Ecstatic Undertaking 

Orts Opens Its 15th Season With A Masterwork Of Aerial Dance Based On The 13th-Century Writings Of A Sufi Poet And Mystic.

THIS WEEKEND, ORTS opens its four-concert season with a masterwork by long-time collaborator Robert Davidson, entitled Rapture: Rumi. Created for his own company, this Tucson debut marks the first time Rumi has been performed in several years, and the first time ever by another company. A graceful and athletic work, performed almost entirely in the air by the eight Orts dancers, it's assuredly a dramatic opening for one of Tucson's most dynamic modern dance troupes.

Davidson, a respected modern dancer, aerialist and educator, last presented a full-evening work for Orts with 1997's Airborne: Meister Eckhart (coincidentally, also based on the works of a 13th-century spiritualist). He quips, "Maybe my next one will be Dante, who was also [writing] at that time in Italy."

His 75-minute work is a "meditation" on the life of the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi and his mentor, a wandering holy man known as Shams. Rapture: Rumi has 11 sections, loosely structured around the meeting, spiritual merging and forced separation of the two men. Each corresponds to a short poem from the book Unseen Rain. Through music (an imaginative score by composer Steven Flynn), movement and spoken word, this poetic dramatization embodies Rumi's fundamental images of "the magnificent perfection and mystery of circles, the drunkenness and ecstasy of divine love, and the complex, dynamic tension between Lover and Beloved." The program will be performed without an intermission.

Twenty-nine-year-old Charles Thompson plays the part of the 60-year-old Shams (formerly played by Davidson himself). UA undergrad Matthew Henley is Rumi, who at age 24 (in 1231) succeeded his father as the head of a long line of mystics and theologians; Rumi was 37 at the beginning of his three-year relationship with Shams. One of the most stunning segments in Rapture is the 11-minute duet "Shams and Rumi," in which the dancers circle above the stage on a single trapeze in a combination that includes suspending their prone bodies for several minutes above one another, gliding through the air with deceptive ease in a fluid, caressing embrace.

The strenuous duet leads seamlessly into "Perfection 1: Spinning," in which the Orts women -- who appear throughout as "manifestations of light, perfection, death and ecstasy" -- return to four of the five trapezes. Eyes closed, Rumi "imagines" the first dance of the Whirling Dervish, revealed to us by trapezes spinning to an entrancing melody of wind instruments. The circle of light slowly expands to reveal the other dancers, and Davidson recites to them: "...my head here in my hands/with something circling inside. I have no name for what circles/so perfectly."

This rehearsal, less than a week before opening night, is only the second (and last) they'll have with Davidson (who's flown in from Denver for an intensive weekend of fine-tuning). The Orts dancers learned most of the work from a video tape, and have been rehearsing seven- to 12-hour days for the past month. Davidson seems pleased.

"You can't believe what this does to your abs," he says as one of the dancers raises his chin to his knees while spinning upside down. In another minute, his arched neck will leave his chin a mere inch or two from the ground as the trapeze unwinds with increasing speed.

Company dancer Mimi Chen similarly expounds Rapture's physical demands, like the unavoidable nausea from repeatedly spinning, upside down, the blood rushing to their heads. She has a petite, balletic body, and she speaks almost with awe about the upper-body strength the trapeze requires, especially of the men.

Under the guidance of Davidson, the dancers are so adept at their illusions that their discomfort and even danger are eclipsed by performances marked by a fluid ease of movement. Deliberate, elongated movements mesmerize with their defiance of gravity, their speed and fearlessness (a 12-foot gap between still trapezes shrinks to inches during many of the combinations).

The beauty, suffering and ecstasy encountered in the quest for enlightenment find a moving metaphor in Rapture: Rumi. Throughout, we taste the spiritual subject matter as the dancers struggle to float above their own mental and physical limitations. It's a process captured by the poetic words of mentor Davidson, who calls out directions like, "Before you die, you [must] rise high and melt."






Orts performs Rapture: Rumi on October 15, 16 and 17, at the PCC Center for the Arts Proscenium Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Show time is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m Sunday. Advance tickets are $8 and $10, available at Bentley's, Antigone Books, Silverbell Trading, the CFA box office (206-6986) or by e-mail at tickets@orts.org. For information, call 624-3799.

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