Grassroots Dance

Ballet Tucson closes the season with 'Sleeping Beauty'

Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner are on the Ballet Tucson studio sidelines, watching as the company stars move through the grand pas de deux from the final act of Sleeping Beauty.

"That's a lot better," Gardner says encouragingly to dancers Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup when they're done, but McKerrow has a few corrections.

"Jenna, you need to speed up, and Daniel needs to slow down," she says. "But it's really good today, just a few detail-y things. More chassés between the écartés."

But McKerrow and Gardner have more than words to offer. With years of dance experience between them—at American Ballet Theatre, with Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project, with Mark Morris Dance Group—they can demonstrate the steps with their own practiced bodies. McKerrow jumps to her feet, and Gardner puts his hands around her waist, balancing her as they move fluidly through a fragment of the duet, their piqués precise, their turns exquisite.

Now it's Johnson and Precup's turn to watch. Everyone in the room, including the corps dancers sitting rapt at the edge of the floor, joins them in gazing at the teachers' lovely movements. McKerrow and Gardner often danced the parts of the prince and the Sleeping Beauty on New York stages, and they don't hesitate for a second. When they finish their impromptu performance, the Ballet Tucson stars try the passage again themselves.

Johnson and Precup dance the entire pas de deux to the grand symphonic music of Tchaikovsky, rehearsing for their troupe's big Mother's Day weekend production of Sleeping Beauty on Friday night and Sunday afternoon at Centennial Hall. (For contemporary dance on campus this weekend, see below.)

Though they're dressed in practice clothes—Precup is in a white tank and black shorts, and Johnson is in brown tights and a leotard softened by a short white net skirt—the dancers suddenly become the lovers of the classic ballet, Prince Désiré and Princess Aurora.

Gardner beams as Precup lifts Johnson high, and McKerrow nods.

"You'd made a lot of application of the corrections," she says. "Those diagonal pirouettes were the best yet."

McKerrow and Gardner are retired from dancing, but they're still working, traveling around the country to different companies, setting old works on dancers and creating new choreography. They're fresh from an engagement last fall at ABT, where they set works by Antony Tudor on the company dancers for a centennial celebration. Tudor, a major 20th-century choreographer, was associated with ABT for many years until his death in 1987.

"We got to work with him so long," Gardner says. "He got me into ABT originally. He saw me in a class when I was 17 and asked me if I wanted to join. He's part of who I am as an artist."

Since 2006, the husband and wife have had an off-and-on gig with Ballet Tucson as artistic associates, bringing their expertise to the city's only professional dance company. They've both danced on occasion with the local company, but usually, they come to town to teach dances to the performers and help stage the ballets.

"We love it here," McKerrow says during a break, when the dancers have gone off to lunch. "This is a great town. We're very fond of the dancers and staff here."

The pair has been here this time since the spring, when they restaged the Tudor piece "Fandango" on five dancers for the Dance and Dessert concert. For Sleeping Beauty, they've added a fair amount of choreography to the company's 2005 production, created by artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana and assistant artistic director Chieko Imada.

"We're adding characters, using dancers from the school," Gardner explained. "The students get to dance more."

Young dancers Jonathan Kyle and Jahna Frantziskonis—a Nutcracker Clara the last two years—take on the newly created parts of the Prince's Squire and the Lilac Fairy Page. Gardner and McKerrow also added three young dancers to portray Aurora at ages 4, 8 and 12, to convey the passage of time from the princess' christening, when an evil fairy casts a spell, to her 16th birthday, when she fatefully pricks her finger on the spindle.

"It's a beautiful story, and we want it to be told clearly," Gardner says. Helping the narrative along will be the sumptuous courtly costumes and royal sets.

The ballet premiered in 1890 at the famed Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, with choreography by Petipa and music by Tchaikovsky. Based on the French fairy tale by Perrault and filled with a host of kindly fairies, the story tells of a magical 100-year sleep, broken by a prince's kiss. But it also included from the start an assortment of other fairy-tale characters—Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Puss-in-Boots and Cinderella. These worthies dance at the wedding in the happy-ever-after ending scene.

The original is four hours long, including a prologue and three acts, but the Ballet Tucson version is a brisk two hours, divided into two acts. With the help of Jim Brady Recording Studios in Tucson, McKerrow trimmed the music to fit the shorter time frame, and re-arranged segments to go with different scenes.

"My father was a musician," she says. "Every child in the house had to play an instrument; it was part of growing up. I played the piano."

Plus, adds Gardner, "We've heard the music for so many years, we're familiar with it."

Sleeping Beauty closes the company's 23rd season. The dancers will include the company's 20 paid professionals, plus apprentices, advanced students from the Ballet Arts School and the little kids who are learning. Journey Temple, who plays the 4-year-old Aurora, is "adorable and sharp as a tack," McKerrow says. "There will be wonderful dancing. You get to see the whole spectrum of becoming a dancer, from young students to the experienced dancers."

That's what she and Gardner like about working with Ballet Tucson.

"It's a grassroots thing," Gardner explains, "working with ballet where it all starts. Without the Ballet Tucson spark, you'd have no ABT fire."

Over at the UA School of Dance, two MFA candidates are staging a contemporary collaboration between dancers and musicians. Art.if.act, the brainchild of master's students Ashley Bowman and Claire Hancock, will enlist fellow dancers from the school performing original choreography, and musicians who play new compositions live.