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Getting Over the Pain 

Members of the Esperanza Dance Project want to take their sexual-abuse-awareness show on the road

The Esperanza Dance Project concert this Saturday night will open with a dance that radiates joy.

"Sisters of Grace," which debuted at the O-T-O anniversary show last June, celebrates the connection between women. Choreographed by Esperanza artistic director Beth Braun, the seven-minute work is "classical modern dance about a sense of sisterhood," Braun says. Danced to recorded violin, piano, percussion and cello by the Ahn Trio, the piece "leaves dancers with the feeling of the beauty of dance."

Act 1's joyous opener—and other happy works by guest choreographers Nanette Robinson and Anton Smith—provide a contrast to the more difficult material in the concert's second half. Act 2 consists of a series of related dances about childhood sexual abuse, under the rubric Their Souls Dwell in the House of Hope. Alternating with spoken word, the five dances convey the journey of a survivor, moving from youthful energy to pain to numbness, and on to ultimate healing.

"This piece is what Esperanza is really about," Braun says. "My main intention is to perform it in high schools to spread awareness about sexual abuse and hope for healing."

Braun founded the project two years ago, not only to educate people about the problem, but to raise money to pay for treatment for a young Tucson woman who had suffered through it. Though Braun has staged two performances already—a music concert in 2009 and a dance concert with pickup dancers in 2010—this marks the formal debut of the troupe, whose name, Esperanza, is Spanish for "hope."

"We have 17 dancers, not including myself," says Braun, who dances as well as choreographs. "That's so exciting. What I love is that we have an age range of 15 to 50, and we all dance together."

Company members include local professional dancers Sara Anderson Stewart, Audrey Copeland and Mirela Roza of ZUZI! Dance Company, where Braun was once associate artistic director, and Darrell Wilmore and Vy Kieu, of The Human Project. The youngest dancers are still in high school, one at Tucson High and the others at University/Rincon High School, where Braun heads the dance department.

The rest are former students of Braun's. Some are at the UA.

"A couple are leaving town to go to college," Braun says. "The rest are pretty committed to the project. This is just the beginning of this whole thing."

Braun's plan is to stage Their Souls as an assembly at high schools, first in Tucson and then around the country. Above all, Braun hopes to convey the possibility of victims surviving and getting over the pain.

"I've met so many people who have taken what they went through and have wonderful lives now," she says.

Any proceeds of the concert will benefit the project, which is under the fiscal sponsorship of Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit that serves small arts organizations.

Braun says she chose the music specifically to appeal to teenagers. Their Souls opens with "I Don't Pray Anymore," a lively work with 14 dancers moving to techno music by Simon Collins. The work was generated during poetry-writing workshops, and combines the dancers' spoken words with the music. "It's not sad at all," Braun notes.

Next up, "Give Me Novacaine," set to the Green Day song, is a "high-energy, frenetic piece" for five dancers.

"It's about numbing ourselves to not feel what's going on," Braun says.

"Hurt," with music by Nine Inch Nails, is "about the extremes people go to not to feel pain: doing drugs, alcohol, self-mutilation. It's really sad, with slow music, and the movement is more lyrical."

"To Cry for You" is set to an elegiac song in Hebrew, sung in Israel on that nation's Memorial Day. Braun first created the dance for an April service at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. The dance for three is about "grief and loss, and about watching loved ones go through this."

Finally, the whole company dances Ben Harper's "She's Only Happy in the Sun."

"It will tie everything together," Braun says. "It's a really pretty song that gives a sense of healing. The dancing will be soft, with a lot of connection between dancers."

The dancers wear everyday clothes and dancewear; one color dominates in each section, until the final piece, when a rainbow of hues converges, "melding all colors."

In the show's first half are two enjoyable pieces by Robinson, reprised from ZUZI's Come Together Beatles show in May. "If I Fell" is an aerial duet danced on trapeze by Maria Sara Villa and Scott Bird. Ekida Laurie solos on "I'm So Tired."

Wilmore of The Human Project dances "Tony's Revenge," to a rap song performed live by choreographer Smith.

The first half ends with Braun's "I Am One," an 18-minute group work danced to a poem written by Vy Kieu, back when she was a student of Braun's at University/Rincon. Kieu won second place when she performed the poem at the high school's poetry-slam contest. The following year, she gave her teacher permission to create a dance around it.

At the concert Saturday night, Kieu will recite the poem, her spoken words alternating with music by the Ahn Trio and Dave Brubeck, and a Nina Simone version of the traditional gospel song "Sinner Man."

"The poem is about personal empowerment," Braun says, "about being an individual, staying true to oneself, about passion, individuality and creativity."

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