Impeccable Dance Pedigree

A classic by Agnes de Mille makes its apparent Arizona debut in Ballet Tucson's 'Season Opener'

The great choreographer Agnes de Mille was in a wheelchair when she went to Ohio in the 1970s to set her "Three Virgins and a Devil" on the Cleveland Ballet.

"She'd had a stroke, but mentally, she was as sharp as a tack," says Mary Beth Cabana, who danced the part of the Lustful Virgin under de Mille's direction. "She was a taskmaster of the old school. But when you're working with a legendary figure, you're respectful and reverent. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with her."

Cabana has now brought "Three Virgins and a Devil" to Ballet Tucson, where she is artistic director.

"To my knowledge, it's never been done in Arizona before," she says.

The 1934 comic ballet, about a canny demon who tries to lure three young would-be nuns into hell, was inspired by a 14th-century tale by Boccaccio.

"It's fantastic, delightful and really funny," Cabana says. And with a horned devil—a staple of Halloween and the Day of the Dead—the half-hour dance is "seasonally appropriate" for the company's annual fall concert.

Cabana is not the only one involved with the production to have benefited from de Mille's sharp eye. Artistic associate John Gardner "had a chance to work with Agnes also," Cabana says, when he danced the part of the Youth—the handsome young man the Devil proffers to the Lustful Virgin—at American Ballet Theatre in the late 1980s. (De Mille died in 1993.)

Gardner and Amanda McKerrow, his fellow artistic associate and ABT veteran, set the work on the Ballet Tucson dancers. (McKerrow also recently staged it at Alabama Ballet.)

"John and Amanda have done a fantastic job restaging it," Cabana says. Just last week, a rep from de Mille Productions came out "to make sure everything was accurate and to put on the finishing touches."

De Mille's movements are "difficult," says Cabana, who also danced the Cowgirl under de Mille's direction in her famous "Rodeo." "She has trademark hand positions and ports de bras. You can always tell a de Mille piece. Our dancers had to learn a new style of movement."

The dance's five parts are double-cast, with the two casts alternating in the five concerts this weekend. For the opening-night gala, Derek Lauer is the Devil, and Daniel Salvador is the Youth. Deanna Doncsecz dances the Priggish Virgin—the plum role de Mille danced herself when the work had its ABT debut. Jonelle Camp plays the Greedy Virgin, and Hadley Jalbert the Lustful Virgin. Daniel Precup dances the Devil in the alternate cast. They'll perform to recorded music by Ottorino Respighi.

Bolstering the production's impeccable pedigree, the company rented costumes from ABT, which still occasionally dances the work. Ballet Tucson also invested in a new set. Joe McGrath and Sonora Theatre Works created a cave entrance—the mouth of hell—on one side of the stage, and its opposite number, a convent, on the other.

The historic re-creation of "Three Virgins and a Devil" will be the highlight of the concerts, but the company is dancing two other pieces as well, each representing different strains of ballet.

A revival of "Esmeralda and the Hunchback" opens the show. A work by independent choreographer Mark Schneider, it was first performed by the company in 2009.

"Mark has a neoclassical style, very distinctive," Cabana says.

A half-hour dance distillation of Victor Hugo's massive 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, the ballet tells of a beautiful gypsy woman (Jenna Johnson), and the men who love her—or just lust after her. Precup dances the hunchback, Quasimodo; Stuart Lauer is Frollo, "the tormented archdeacon who is obsessed with Esmeralda," Cabana says; and Benjamin Tucker plays the dashing young Captain Phoebus.

Dozens of gypsies, jesters and orphans—danced by the company corps, and the children and teens in the Ballet Arts school—will cavort in a set evoking the plaza of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

The final work on the program, "Raymonda Variations," is a classical ballet straight out of old Russia, danced in traditional costumes.

"It's always nice to have a tutu ballet in the season opener," Cabana says.

Choreographed by the famed Marius Petipa, the full three-act ballet "Raymonda" premiered in St. Petersburg in 1898. Set to the lush music of Alexander Glazunov, the ballet tells the tale of a young couple whose betrothal is temporarily endangered by an aggressive rival for the woman's hand.

Ballet Tucson will stage only a 22-minute excerpt. "Raymonda Variations" is drawn from Act III, when all ends happily in a joyful wedding scene, followed by divertissement dances. The bride, Raymonda, is danced by Johnson; Stuart Lauer is her beloved, Jean de Brienne.

"It's very energetic, rousing and lively," Cabana says. "There's a corps of 10 dancers, and a principal couple and two soloist couples." Each of the couples performs Petipa's showstopper pas de deux.

Alexandra Sermon, a dancer new to the company, partners with Kyle Petersen on one of the pas de deux. A recent graduate of Brigham Young University, she was the principal ballerina in the school's touring company and "has a lot of experience," Cabana says.

Sermon filled a vacancy left by Megan Terry, a charismatic dancer who grew up in the Ballet Arts studio and had recently stepped up to leading roles in the professional company. She departed after last season to try her luck in San Francisco, Cabana says, and "we're hoping Alexandra will be able to step into Megan Terry's pointe shoes."