Irish Influences

ZUZI's solstice show draws inspiration from its co-artistic director's ancestral home.

Last summer, Nanette Robinson, co-artistic director of ZUZI! Dance Company, was debating whether to go to Ireland.

Granddaughter of Irish people on her mother's side and daughter of an Irish-born father, Robinson had been invited to visit her friend, Tucson violinist Lindianne Sarno. Sarno was spending several months on the northernmost tip of Donegal, a place so remote that travelers typically arrange to get there via a private shuttle service. When Robinson learned the shuttle driver's name, the deal was sealed.

"He's John McGinley," Robinson said by phone last week. "That's my grandfather's name. It turned out all the McGinleys were from Donegal."

Off Robinson went, and she was so inspired by her "experience of the place as my ancestral home" that the Ireland trip became the subtext for ZUZI's sixth annual solstice show, Sanctuary of Stone. Each winter, the troupe's modern-dance concert reaches back to the midwinter festival that's far older than Christmas; as Robinson learned, this pagan celebration of light in the darkness was taken seriously by the pre-Christian Celts of Ireland. Scheduled for this weekend, the ZUZI solstice shows are meant partially to serve as a counterpart to the profusion of Noel-oriented Nutcrackers that will crowd local stages the same days. (See the Nov. 27 issue for Nutcracker times and places. For another non-Nutcracker offering this weekend, see below.)

This year's edition features two Irish-inspired works by Robinson and several pieces by other company choreographers, to be performed by the troupe's 14 regular dancers. Also performing are singer Cantrell Maryott Driver and Many Limbs, ZUZI's new youth aerial troupe; a group of community dancers will dance "See Hearts Gather," a workshop piece structured by Robinson and new co-director Willard.

Robinson opens the show with her "White Fields," a trapeze solo.

"The image I had was a beach I went to when I first got to Ireland, at Corcreggan," she said. "The tide leaves a white field of sand. This got mixed with the personal memory of my father," Stan Robinson, a Belfast man who died 20 years ago. Mournful violin music by Peter Ostroushko of Finland accompanies Robinson's solo, but those melancholy strains give way to boisterous Irish fiddle music that welcomes the entire cast of 30 to the stage.

"Enchantment," a Robinson work for six dancers, is also danced to traditional Irish music, and it also features a flying apparatus. This one takes its name from a Donegal glen that "cuts between two mountains," Robinson said. The Irish language and culture lasted longest in the rugged north and west of Ireland, where they were almost beyond the reach of the English, and this Donegal glen was, until recently, home to Irish speakers, Robinson said, and it "had a lot of fairy activity." A triple Celtic spiral design called the triscallion helped shape the dance, which features two trios of dancers.

Also on the program are four reprises from previous concerts. Beth Braun has reworked her 2002 "Skyscraper," a meditation on Sept. 11, danced by seven company dancers. Peggy Paver, a ZUZI member who recently moved to Oregon, came back two weeks ago to reset her Australian work, "Embracing Uluru," on six troupers. Wendy Joy performs her own duet, "Ebb and Flow," with Yumi Shirai.

And Robinson has expanded her "Evening Sky," a big work for a baker's dozen of dancers. Robinson said the work draws on a thought articulated by company co-founder Nancy Mellan, who has stepped down as co-artistic director. It "explores the darkness from which creativity is born and the place where we find our most authentic selves," Mellan wrote.

OLD-FASHIONED ICE skaters turn the stage of the UA's new Stevie Eller Dance Theatre into an imaginary skating rink Friday night. Flor de Liz Dance Ensemble, the performing arm of a local studio, performs the ballet "Les Patineurs" (ice skaters) as part of its Winter Festival 2003 concert. Re-choreographed by company ballet mistress Kelley Koehler to the music of Meyerbeer, the 15-minute ballet features a big cast of 18.

The dancers come from the studio's advanced classes, says owner Flor de Liz Norris, who opened the school 2 1/2 years ago, though some of the younger students dance in the big pieces. Norris, who holds a master's in dance from the UA and once danced with O-T-O Dance, also performs in the show.

Other works include contemporary ballets by company artistic director Stephanie Stigers, who once danced with the Israel National Opera and the Radio City Ballet, and who directed Western Ballet Theater in Tucson from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Stigers' "Escapade" begins the show. "It's a behind-the-scenes piece, danced in rehearsal clothes," Norris reports. This comical work is balanced by Stigers' "As If Upon the Wings of Night," an abstract meditation on war and its aftermath.

Norris herself contributes "Folkways," a modern piece danced to folk music. "It's a funny, silly piece," Norris says. "The movement is goofy. It makes fun of very serious works."

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