Jazzed Students

UA's annual 'Spring Collection' features a battle of the dance genres

A ballet master goes toe to toe against a master of modern dance--using the same piece of Bach music--at this weekend's Spring Collection concerts by the UA Dance Ensemble.

George Balanchine's 1940 "Concerto Barocco" opens the Friday and Saturday evening shows with a burst of neoclassical ballet, and Paul Taylor's 1975 "Esplanade" closes them with a work that was a turning point of modernism. And though polar opposite in technique and sensibility, the two pieces are both set to J.S. Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins.

"These are two very different takes on the same score, one by a classical choreographer, one by a modern choreographer," says Melissa Lowe, UA ballet professor. "This would rarely happen in a regular company, because no modern company would do the ballet, and a ballet company wouldn't do the modern. It's incredible that our dancers have the depth to do both."

The UA Dance Ensemble debuted Taylor's classic "Esplanade" in March, giving a fresh and deft performance to the wildly vigorous work. Set on the UA dancers on several trips to Tucson by Ruth Andrien, a former Taylor dancer, the group work for seven dancers was radical in its time, for transforming the movements of everyday life into virtuoso dance. Double-cast, the same dancers reprise the piece this month for the toe-down with Balanchine.

"The students are jazzed!" Lowe says.

Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" is performed by an ensemble of eight women, who never stop dancing throughout its 21 minutes ("They're learning to be incredible athletes," Lowe notes), along with two female principals and a lone male.

Opening in New York in 1940, the work was a "new statement of Balanchine's classical base," Lowe says. But the Russian émigré had lived in America seven years by then, and "he was also enthralled by jazz. 'Barocco' almost resembles jazz at times; it's off-balance. The story goes that he had seen Josephine Baker, and these jazz influences came in."

In the first and third movements, two female dancers follow the musical line of Bach's two violin solos, engaging in a kind of choreographic conversation. A male-female pas de deux in the second movement stars Cory Gram and Keri Poff both nights; Christina Cichra and Rebecca Blaney alternate the other woman's principal role. At a Sunday matinee that does not include the Taylor work, Nicholas Torres, Antoinette Lum and Jacqui Guimond take the leads.

Lowe says the dance division plans to keep the high-octane classics coming. Last spring, its dancers tackled Balanchine's first American piece, "Serenade," from 1934.

"We realized the value we provided to the audience, and the direct benefits to our students. It was huge. Everybody leapt forward in technique and in performing sensibilities. It was exhilarating!"

Leslie Peck, a former Balanchine dancer who once danced with Lowe and dance division head Jory Hancock at Pacific Northwest Ballet, set "Serenade" on the dancers last year. She returned to town this year to do the same with "Concerto Barocco." Now a dance professor at UC Irvine, Peck is licensed by the George Balanchine Trust to stage about 10 of the choreographer's masterworks.

The plan, Lowe says, is for the UA dancers to "cycle through the signature works of Balanchine" in the coming years.

The Balanchine and Taylor works highlight the concerts, but in four shows over three days, the students will dance some 26 different pieces, new and old.

"You need a road map" to navigate the lineup, Lowe jokes.

She and Hancock have reconstructed a ballet duet from 1842, the William Tell pas de deux by August Bournonville, an influential 19th-century Danish choreographer. It was originally danced within the Rossini opera of the same name, but today is not often done, Lowe says. "Its idiom goes against the grain."

The concerts also feature a number of premieres by UA dance professors. Amy Ernst debuts a modern work, "New Favorite," while ballet professor Nina Janik presents "WaWaWa," inspired by vaudeville and 1930s cartoons. Jazz teacher Sam Watson introduces "Grimm Tales," based on the German fairy stories, and Susan Quinn offers up "GTRSRNG + 05," a jazzy work for 13 dancers.

Barbea Williams leads the UA Afrikana Dance Ensemble in "Daughters of the Wind." Visiting mime artist Rick Wamer debuts "Parasol Fantasy," a new mime theater piece e choreographed specifically for the UA dancers.

Here's a rundown of the concerts:

Friday and Saturday evening offer up the Balanchine, Taylor, Bournonville and Ernst.

Saturday matinee and Sunday evening include works by Janik, Quinn and Williams. The Sunday matinee will reprise the Balanchine and Bournonville, and debut Watson's and Wamer's pieces.

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