"When I found myself without a company, everyone said, 'What are you going to do next?'" he says, referring to his split last year with Lee Anne Hartley, his co-founder and co-artistic director of FUNHOUSE movement theater. Hartley continued directing that company, and Lewis decided to start his own.
"I took some time. I talked to people. The advice from everyone was, 'It's time to do your own thing.'"
Lewis, winner of the Mayor's Arts Award, had cycled through a number of local troupes, including O-T-O Dance and the now-defunct 10th Street Danceworks. He was heartened by the counsel of the respected John Wilson, a retired UA professor of dance and the "great patriarch of Tucson dance." He says Wilson told him, "Having your own company is long overdue."
So this weekend, Lewis premieres his eponymous Thom Lewis Dance. The show at Stevie Eller is called, appropriately enough, The Premiere Concert. (See below for information about dance concerts by Ronald K. Brown/Evidence and ZUZI! this week.)
Lewis debuts just one work, "Motion Sickness," danced by 15 kids and a quintet of adults, and reprises two of his best pieces from the past, the duets "Not About You" and "Everlast." But the new company will also show what he calls "the dances of other choreographers people should see more of."
Accordingly, he's enlisted three guest choreographers. Laura Rosenfeld Spiri restages her "Cat's Cradle," a signature piece of 10th Street. Katie Rutterer will show "Fall Ball," a "strangely humorous" dance for four that Lewis saw and admired in her MFA concert at the UA School of Dance. Amy Barr-Holm puts on another quartet, "Changing Lanes." Dancers Rutterer and Barr-Holm also dance with NEW ART, and frequently worked with Lewis at FUNHOUSE.
The new troupe is emerging during a transition period on the Tucson modern-dance scene. ZUZI! Dance Company is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and FUNHOUSE continues its twice-a-year concert schedule. But O-T-O and NEW ART have both scaled back. Annie Bunker, O-T-O's artistic director, is now living and teaching much of the year in Hawaii; her longtime company is producing only one concert this year, Flying Films and Dance III, in June. Likewise, NEW ART has been absent from the stage for a while, though a community piece, We Are What We Eat, is scheduled for April, and a regular concert is set for late May.
Lewis is one of the best local choreographers, routinely choreographing dances that combine wit and elegance. He's likely to find his own niche--and his own audience. He was able to put together about $5,000 for Thom Lewis Dance through a fundraiser in January, and he got a $1,600 grant from the Tucson Pima Arts Council. A children's ballet he staged in January, closed to the public, also made a profit.
A dance teacher for the Tucson Unified School District in the Opening Minds Through the Arts (OMA) program, he's long had a talent for making use of the natural movement of kids. The premiere, "Motion Sickness," enlists third-, fourth- and fifth-graders he teaches at Hudlow Elementary. At the fundraiser, the kids previewed one segment of the piece, "The Gum Dance," a belly-laugh-funny look at what happens when kids get stuck to the ground.
"I want the kids to look like kids, not fugitives from Madame Fifi's Dance Studio," Lewis says.
The work explores the "childhood obsession with spinning and getting dizzy"--the joy kids take in twirling around. Lewis had to mesh the freewheeling movement of the kids with the more choreographed moves he gives the adult pros: "The challenge is to put them in the dance with the kids, without it looking like technique."
The adults risking being upstaged by cute kids are Barr-Holm, Rutterer, Janine Holton (who also works in OMA), and Kimi Eisele and Laura Reichhardt of NEW ART.
"Like Kimi, Laura is one of those people I've been wanting to work with," Lewis says.
Music includes the Chieftains riffing on Dvorak's "New World" Symphony and a Meredith Monk/David Byrne piece that "sounds circular and turning."
Lewis' 1989 "Not About You," danced by Max Foster and Andrea Murray, is an exquisite near-balletic duet to the music of Aram Khachaturian. Last danced in a FUNHOUSE concert five years ago, the complicated work got Lewis his first choreographic fellowship.
"Everlast," from 1995, was selected for the American College Dance Festival. Danced by Lewis and his partner, Julia Miller, the piece chronicles the end of a marriage. The pair wear red boxing gloves as they joust to the tunes of Lyle Lovett.
"It tells the same story twice: First, it's her point of view. The guy's a jerk. Then it's his point of view."
Rosenfeld Spiri's "Cat's Cradle" years ago won the choreographer a "nomination for the prestigious Arizona Arts Award," Lewis says. "There are a lot of award-winning pieces in the show."
Danced by six women--Rutterer, Reichhardt, Murray, Barr-Holm, O-T-O's Sukie Keita and NEW ART's Alison Whitcomb--to an "amazing recording of a piece called 'Marimba Spiritual,'" "Cat's Cradle" closes the show.
"It's all my fault now," Lewis says, only half-joking. "Anything on the stage is my responsibility."
ZUZI! Dance Company celebrates its 10th anniversary with a Best of ZUZI! concert, silent auction and gala reception Saturday. On the dance menus are reprises of "Enchantment" and "Falling Angels" by artistic director Nanette Robinson, "Beyond Bodies" by Jennifer Hoefle, and "Skyscraper" by Beth Braun. Dancer Nathan Dryden, a former Tucsonan much missed on local stages, returns to perform a solo aerial piece. Musicians Hoshin Gupta, Sally Withers and John Bormanis play live.
It's been six long years since Ronald K. Brown, a leading light in modern dance, brought his Evidence Dance Company to Tucson. He ends the drought Tuesday night at Centennial Hall with One Shot, a new multimedia piece about African-American photographer Charles "Teenie" Harris. A photographer for the black paper Pittsburgh Courier, "One Shot" documented the black community for 40 years. (He got his nickname from his talent for getting the picture right the first time.) His photos will be showcased large-scale on stage, beyond the dancers; the concert's jazz music includes riffs by Billy Strayhorn.
Brown rose up out of impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York to become a choreographer acclaimed by critics as the successor to the late Alvin Ailey. A student of African movement, black American vernacular dance, hip-hop, ballet and modern, Brown creates highly original narrative dances that are spiritually charged.