Grand Collaboration

Ballet Tucson uses a dream team to produce the classic 'Swan Lake'

Three Ballet Tucson danseurs are flying across the floor in a midtown studio, zipping through tours and jetés and pliés to conjure up a dance in a fairy-tale castle.

"It's really important that we're together there," John Gardner calls out, leaping up from the sidelines to join the dancing men. "We need a clean fifth, a clean ending."

So Daniel Escudero, Stuart Lauer and Isaac Sharratt take another turn across the floor with Gardner, acting the part of courtiers celebrating the 21st birthday of Prince Siegfried, the hapless hero of the ballet classic Swan Lake. When Gardner's satisfied with their progress, he returns to his chair, rejoining the team of choreographers critically eyeing the rehearsal.

"Let's try it one more time without me!" he says.

Jeffrey Graham Hughes, sitting on his left, jokes, "But you do it so well," before turning his attention to the dancers. "Stuart, be careful of the double tours. Don't get discombobulated."

The dancers repeat the scene and then return once more to terra firma, panting and sweating.

"Much better, you guys," Gardner says cheerfully. His collaborators, Amanda McKerrow, Chieko Imada and Hughes, nod their agreement.

Mary-Beth Cabana is the only one of the five Swan Lake choreographers not sitting and watching on this particular day, but she slips into the studio periodically.

"This is a grand collaboration," she says. "We have a lot of good people around."

Ballet Tucson has deployed a dream team of choreographers to create its first full-length Swan Lake, to be danced this weekend as a season finale at Centennial Hall. The five--artistic director Cabana, assistant artistic director Imada, artistic associates McKerrow and Gardner, and executive director Hughes--have easily more than a century of dance experience among them.

"Dance has really improved around here," Imada says. "We have so many eyes now. It's amazing. It used to be just the two of us."

Last fall, Imada and Cabana were joined by Hughes, formerly artistic director of Ohio Ballet; McKerrow, a ballerina recently retired from American Ballet Theatre; and her husband, Gardner, a former dancer with the White Oak Dance Project and ABT. The trio hired on to lend their collective expertise to the Tucson troupe, which turned pro nearly three years ago.

Their group Swan Lake is "after Petipa and Ivanov," the Russian choreographers of the standard 1895 version, Cabana says. The company danced Act II of Swan Lake in fall 2003, and some of that work, created by Cabana and Imada, survives in the new full-length version.

"We reconstructed that," Cabana says. "Amanda helped Chieko. John and I worked on the waltz in the first act. Jeff worked on the fourth scene. It's been fun."

One hundred dancers, from pros to apprentices to kids in the Ballet Arts school, will perform in the ballet classic, danced to a CD of the music by Tchaikovsky. Coming in at just less than two hours, the Ballet Tucson version compresses Petipa's and Ivanov's four acts into two.

"The original version is three hours," Cabana says. "But we'll do two acts in four scenes."

The romantic fairy tale, laced with evil and love, is set in a castle and a magical lake in the forest. In Act One, courtiers at the palace are preparing for Prince Siegfried's coming-of-age party, at which he's expected to select a royal bride. But in the second scene, traditionally called "The White Act," he's entranced by a bevy of female swans under an evil magician's spell. Siegfried falls in love with the enchanted Odette and pledges to release her.

At Act II's ballroom gala, Siegfried is indifferent to the prospective brides, who entertain the guests with a series of national dances, until he sees smoldering black-clad Odile. Smitten, the impetuous prince is tricked into believing she's actually innocent Odette. He's horrified when he realizes his mistake, and flees back to the forest to find his true love.

Ballet Tucson's stars, the real-life husband and wife Daniel Precup and Jenna Johnson, dance the leads. Following tradition, Johnson portrays both the virginal Odette and the sensuous Odile. No fewer than 19 ballerinas portray Odette's retinue of swans. Wearing elaborate costumes--including the famous white swan tutus, borrowed this time from The Nutcracker's Snow Scene--the performers dance against lush backdrops.

"The costumes are high fairy tale," Cabana says. "Some, we've restyled. We've dyed the bodices, trimmed the skirts, but they look 100 percent brand new." Madelene Maxwell, the costume designer, is overseeing "a big sweatshop at the studio right now. The sewing people are working around the clock."

Joe McGrath, an actor who takes the part of Drosselmeyer in the annual Nutcracker, made the scenery through his company, Sonora Theatre Works.

"We already had a beautiful second-act forest and lake," Cabana says, "but we have a new backdrop of a castle in the distance, and a lake glowing in the background." Three-dimensional fake rocks will be piled up into a cliff the dancers can climb.

The concert has been long in the planning, and Cabana says she was concerned at first when she learned that the touring Moscow Festival Ballet was bringing its own Swan Lake to Centennial Hall in February. The Russian company's presentation turned out to be rough, with sloppy corps dancing, but the local troupe had already decided to go on with the show. A full-scale professional company, after all, needs to accumulate a number of classics.

"We want to build up our full-length repertoire," Cabana says. "I'm excited."