Fête of Femininity

ZUZI!'s new show celebrates women including a dance for Pakistani heroine Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai is the young Pakistani teen who was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 for her advocacy of education for girls.

"Voices" is a dance that honors her courage in speaking out.

César Degollado is the choreographer who created the work. Performed by no fewer than 18 dancers, "Voices" will be the grand finale of the ZUZI! Powerful Women concert this weekend.

"César has been our guest choreographer this spring and our guest company teacher," says Nanette Robinson, artistic director of ZUZI! Dance Company.

Though he's known for his longtime ballet work—Degollado danced for years with Ballet Tucson under the name César Rubio—he used a modern style for his "Voices" choreography.

As César Rubio, he was treasured for his comic performances in roles like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. To create a piece about a near-fatal attack on a child, he had to change gears.

"How can one present a piece of choreography telling the story of a 16-year-old girl when her struggles against the Taliban almost took her life away?" Degollado wrote in a choreographer's explanatory note. "It is a challenge for the choreographer and the dancers."

After he left Ballet Tucson in 2011, he formed his own troupe, ConDanza ("with dance"), which dances an eclectic menu of Degollado's modern, contemporary and ballet works. Fourteen of the ConDanza troupers will perform in the ZUZI! show, dancing side by side with four ZUZI! dancers.

Robinson notes that the work paying tribute to Yousafzai, twice a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, fits right in with the concert's theme. Robinson invited both Degollado and her company members to come up with dances "about powerful women in our lives."

The show's resulting nine pieces, danced on trapezes and on the floor, in styles from traditional Indian to modern, are just as varied in the women they focus on. Some are about women in the choreographers' own lives—at least two mothers are honored. The Indian dance piece, by Elizabeth Breck, is about a goddess. Still others conjure famous women, including astronaut Sally Ride, aviator Amelia Earhart and painter Frida Kahlo.

Robinson created "Lace and Steel," the work about Kahlo, whom she admires so much that she staged an evening-long concert in 2012 celebrating her life and career. But this is a brand-new piece. Inspired by Kahlo's 1932 painting "Self-Portrait on the Borderline between Mexico and America," the work deals not only with Kahlo's "powerful artwork but her struggles in her personal life," Robinson says.

Unhappy during a Depression-era stay in Detroit, where people in bread lines jostled against deep-pocketed capitalists, Kahlo painted herself standing between a cold, steel city and a warm, flowering Mexico.

Robinson's dance stars Sky Dominguez as Frida. Breah Ramsey and Lauryn Bianco alternate as Mexican Mother Earth and Cynthia Barthole represents Detroit.

The original painting is projected on the backdrop, and a painted set echoes Kahlo's imagery: Flowers are on one side of the stage and an industrial-looking wall is on the other. Pablo Peregrina and Sally Withers each perform one song live during the 12-minute dance; in between their live performances, recorded music is played.

In "Born to Fly," the kids in the ZUZI! Youth Company mimic the soaring achievements of Ride and Earhart. The work is an aerial piece, natch, with dancers riding high on ropes and trapezes. Choreographed by Carie Schneider in collaboration with the six performers, it's danced to the song "The Optimist" by Zoë Keating. Another aerial work, "In Sheep's Clothing," has Monica Boccio performing solo.

Coincidentally, this concert about women will be staged two weekends before Mother's Day, which falls on May 11. Schneider has created an aerial solo, "Generation," that pays tribute not only to her mother but also to the other women of her mother's generation, the '60s and '70s feminists "who paved the way for the freedoms and opportunities I have today," she writes in a choreographer's note. Schneider will dance the aerial solo to "Woodstock," performed by Austra.

The concert begins with a mother-to-be in real life dancing the solo "A Mother's Lullaby." Robinson and the expectant mom, Sara Stewart, choreographed it together.

"Sara's having the baby at the end of June," Robinson says. "I told her, 'I hope you're going to show off your pregnancy in a dance.'"

The two choreographers pulled quotes from Spiritual Midwifery, the acclaimed book by influential midwife Ina May Gaskin, who is renowned for such pieces of wisdom as this: "Many of our problems in U.S. maternity care stem from the fact that we leave no room for recognizing when nature is smarter than we are." 

The Gaskin gems will be recited in a spoken-word voiceover; the music is "Bhajan" by Sheila Chandra. The dance segues into a musical interlude, with Peregrina singing and playing guitar for his own composition "A Mother's Lullaby." Company dancer Stewart teaches dance at Tucson High and directs the ZUZI! Apprentice Company. Seven months pregnant, she writes that "Lullaby" is about more than her own impending motherhood.

It's a "sweet dance celebrating all mothers."

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