Happy Anniversary

Ballet Tucson celebrates a decade with dessert; Safos reflects with Rodin

An homage to Rodin. A classical ballet set to Mendelssohn. A lament for TUSD's Mexican-American studies program.

These are just a few of the divergent dances that fans can see in town this weekend, when two dance companies—the long-running Ballet Tucson and relative newcomer Safos Dance Theatre, a modern troupe—celebrate anniversaries in separate concerts.

Ballet Tucson, the city's only professional classical dance troupe, marks the end of its 10th season as a pro company (and its 28th season as a force for ballet in Tucson) with its popular annual Dance & Dessert concert.

"Dance & Dessert is typically short pieces," says Mary Beth Cabana, Ballet Tucson's founding artistic director. "The audience enjoys the variety. And it's good in terms of dancer development. The dancers do things they don't have a shot at the rest of the time. Every dancer has a moment when they're seen as an individual."

The brisk menu of nine dances includes everything from a brand-new electronics abstraction by the troupe's Daniel Precup to a neoclassical ballet from the troupe's earliest days, choreographed by Cabana. The concert begins with this nod to the company's origins.

"We started out in 1986 as Ballet Arts Ensemble as a pickup company of dancers," Cabana recounts. That first year she choreographed what would become a signature work, "Mendelssohn Piano Concerto," set to the composer's Concerto No. 1.

"This is how it all started," Cabana says. "I always loved the music. The dance is a fun, mostly fast-paced frolic"—with the second movement slowing down into an adagio. Four of the troupe's top dancers, Jenna Johnson, Stuart Lauer, Hadley Jalbert and Jonelle Mireles, will dance the adagio, but the entire company— 22 dancers strong—will take part in the work.

"Everybody is featured," Cabana says. "Everyone has a little showcase."

At 20 minutes, "Mendelssohn" is one of the longest works in the show. Most average seven or eight minutes. Precup's "Solo from High Noon," danced by Kyle Petersen, is a short teaser for a full-scale cowboy ballet to debut in an upcoming season. As a Romanian national, Precup, also a dancer, brings an outsider's eye to the mythical West, Cabana says. "He's fascinated by cowboy culture."

Company dancer Deanna Doncsecz has begun choreographing as well, working with pickup performers in her new company, Blend. At the Ballet Tucson concert, she'll debut her duet "Phases," which she'll dance in bare feet with Lauer.

"It's pretty modern," Cabana says, and "set to a collage of contemporary music. I've been pushing her to do something. Thinking about the future, I want to mentor company members who have a talent for choreography."

Margaret Mullin, a Ballet Tucson success story, grew up in the company and now dances with the highly regarded Pacific Northwest Ballet. A budding choreographer herself, she came to Tucson to set "Two Touch," a duet she composed with PNB dancer Andrew Bartee, on four Ballet Tucson dancers. They'll take turns dancing it over the weekend's five concerts.

Other works on the program are by Sam Watson, a UA dance prof, and Suzanne Erlon, a former New York City Ballet dancer. The evening ends with "Tomorrow Never Knows," a full-company contemporary ballet set to seven Beatles songs by artistic director Chieko Imada with input from Cabana.

With dancers dressed in tie-dyed bell-bottom unitards and performing beneath an array of kites, "It's a Peter Max moment," Cabana says.

And let us not forget that the dessert that follows these dance entrées is literal: local patisseries donate luscious treats for post-dance sampling.

Safos Dance Theatre is marking its fifth anniversary with a concert aptly named Quinque, the Latin word for "five."

"For our fifth anniversary, we're bringing back highlights from the past five years," says artistic director and founder Yvonne Montoya, "and new work that shows what we're doing now."

Legendary local dancer and choreographer Thom Lewis has been a mentor to the company, and he inspired a brand-new piece about Rodin's sculpture.

"He would tell me that I needed more 'three-dimensionality' in my work," Montoya says, "more of a twist in the body and the spine—like Rodin's 'The Thinker.'"

When Montoya was in Philadelphia for a dance conference and performance last year, she made a point of going to the city's acclaimed Rodin Museum. "The statues were exquisite," she says. The staff allowed her to take photos of the collection—said to be the largest grouping of Rodin pieces outside Paris—and she came home planning a "dance on the statues, inspired by Thom."

Divided into four parts and performed by all four of the troupe's dancers, "Gardens, Rain and Window Panes" is the evening's longest work, at 30 minutes. By turns, it depicts a sculpture garden come to life and imagines what would happen if "The Thinker" left his pedestal.

Dancer Grace Rhyne has also created two new works. "The Sonoran Situation," a solo danced by Phoebe Jenkins, is about "waiting," Montoya says, "waiting for the monsoon or the heat." A duet, "Grasping the Minute," is "a story about twin sisters" danced by Cindy Cantos and Montoya.

The older works include "Language Is a Door," Rhyne's solo tribute to the late Linn Lane, the writer and artist who founded WomanKraft. Montoya retooled her duet "Polka Dots and Bowties," incorporating new member Jenkins' skills in belly dancing.

Another older duet, Part Three of "Zul," has never been performed publicly. "Zul" debuted in March 2012, when the weather had suddenly turned summer-hot. It was so stifling in the un-air-conditioned theater where Safos was dancing that Montoya aborted the performance at the end of Part Two for the dancers' safety.

For its long-postponed debut, "We made some changes," Montoya says. "It has some new legs."

The fourth of the reprises, "Banned Books," is a dance-and-poetry dissection of the abolition of the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program. The work is a collaboration between Montoya and Denver poet Bobby LeFebre, who was doing a residency in Tucson during the fiercest moment of the failed struggle to keep the program alive. Montoya, Rhyne and Cantos dance the work to spoken-word poetry recorded by LeFebre. Safos specializes in modern works reflecting the cultures of the borderlands, and "Banned Books," Montoya says, is the "strongest of all our social justice work."

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