Into the Darkness

Ballet Tucson looks to a spooky silent film for inspiration for its opener

Each October, as Halloween draws near, Ballet Tucson opens its season with a spooky story dance. Last year it was "Dracula." Another year it was "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

This time around it's "Phantom of the Opera." But don't get the idea that Tucson's only pro ballet is doing a takeoff on the glitzy Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lead choreographer Chieko Imada has reached back to something older and darker for inspiration: the scary 1925 silent movie starring Lon Chaney and the 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux.

"The silent film is so like dance," says Imada, who started working on the 55-minute ballet a year and a half ago. "The movements and expressions are very effective."

The old movie had more horror than romance. Chaney's macabre makeup—he looked like a decaying corpse—is justly famous in the annals of Hollywood. Company dancer Daniel Precup, a fine dramatic actor, will likewise paint his face in skeletal fashion to play the Phantom who haunts the Paris Opera.

Prima ballerina Jenna Johnson dances Christine, the young singer he craves. The company's new male lead, Isaiah Sumler, will play her true love, Raoul. Deanna Doncsecz is Carlotta, the opera's diva soprano.

Co-choreographed by company artistic director Mary Beth Cabana, the brand-new "Phantom" sticks to the movie mood. Doug Provost, who does production design for Arizona Opera, worked with Imada on slides and subtitles that will be projected onto the stage backdrop at Stevie Eller.

"It's like watching an old movie reel," Cabana says. "The slides morph from black and white to sepia to color. They have a silent movie effect."

The entire company of 28 dancers—including the professionals, apprentices and trainees—will dance the ballet in a set that includes a replica of the Paris Opera proscenium. Twenty kids and teens from the Ballet Arts school play the dancing children in the Paris Opera Ballet.

The music is decidedly "not Andrew Lloyd Webber," Cabana says. Instead it's a "classical music collage" of period-appropriate works from Bach, Glière, Mussorgsky and Gounod, whose "Faust" is the opera performed by the singers in the story.

The concert, the season opener for the now 29-year-old dance troupe, also includes crowd favorites from previous years. "Joplin," choreographed by former company choreographer Mark Schneider, deploys the entire company in lively Roaring Twenties-style dances, set to Scott Joplin ragtime.

Precup, taking a break from his ghoulish turn as the Phantom, has once again set his popular "Boler-O" on the company. The former lead dancer now choreographs for the company; his "Boler-O," set to the familiar Ravel, is an engaging contemporary work inflected by Spanish movements.

Ballet Tucson has quite a few new dancers, Cabana says, replacing longtime veterans. Most notably, Stuart Lauer, a talented dancer and male lead for several years, who has departed the company after a long tenure. The triple bill of full-company works will introduce the new dancers to the audience, Cabana says. "The new energy is terrific."

Megan Terry, who left Ballet Tucson for San Francisco a few years ago, returns as a guest dancer for the Friday night gala only. Now dancing for Oakland Ballet and other companies, Terry returns with guest artist Gregory DeSantis to dance a contemporary duet by Milissa Payne.