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Like a Sport, Only Harder 

Challenging female-centered ballet is the highlight of Ballet Tucson’s Dance & Dessert concert

click to enlarge Ballet Tucson tackles the historic dance “Kingdom of the Shades” this weekend.

Courtesy of City Ballet of San Diego.

Ballet Tucson tackles the historic dance “Kingdom of the Shades” this weekend.

On International Women's Day last week, a single female dancer stepped out onto Ballet Tucson's dance floor.

She leaned forward, framed her arms in a port de bras and then glided one leg into the air in an elegant arabesque. Then she moved to the left and another dancer fell in line behind her. Then another dancer joined the queue, and another and another, until a contingent of women, 20 strong, filled the rehearsal space.

Moving as one, with exquisite precision, all 20 dancers repeated the same bends, the same ports de bras, the same arabesques, again and again and again.

This extraordinary spectacle, with so many dancers moving in gorgeous precision, is one of the most beloved scenes in the ballet repertoire. Called "Kingdom of the Shades," the piece is the third act of La Bayadère, a story ballet in four acts by the renowned choreographer Marius Petipa.

Set to a haunting and romantic score by Ludwig Minkus, the now-classic Russian ballet debuted at the Bolshoi Theater in St. Petersburg in 1877. The ballet—and especially its lovely third act—is a staple of major ballet companies around the world. But it didn't come to the United States until 1974, when Natalia Makarova staged the third act for American Ballet Theatre.

And until now "Kingdom of the Shades" has never been seen on a Ballet Tucson stage. The dance will be the highlight of this weekend's five Dance & Dessert concerts.

"We've wanted to do it for a while," says company assistant artistic director Chieko Imada, who staged the demanding work. "We needed a good, strong corps de ballet to do it. We have those good dancers now."

Apart from the strong corps of 20 dancers, the piece makes good use of the company's two stars. Prima ballerina Jenna Johnson and season guest artist Fredrick Davis, formerly of Dance Theatre of Harlem, playing a pair of doomed lovers. At the rehearsal on International Women's Day, Davis, the lone male in the female-dominated dance, sported a T-shirt with the slogan "Ballet: Like a Sport, Only Harder." He and Johnson proved that axiom as they cavorted through a series of daredevil solos and pas de deux, dispatching dazzling turns and lifts and leaps.

The 38-minute work also puts a spotlight on three women -- Taylor Johnson, Caitlin Calligan and Kira Greer Rice—who step out from the corps to do show-stopping spins both together and alone.

In the ballet's complicated story, set in India, Nikiya, a temple dancer—a bayadère—played by Johnson, has fallen in love with the warrior Solor, danced by Davis. The two swear their love to one another, but Solor's father has promised him to another woman. By the time Act Three begins, Nikiya is already dead, murdered by her rival. In a dream, the bereaved Solor visits his lost love in the Kingdom of the Shades, a land of ghosts high in the Himalayas.

All the women in the piece dress in ethereal white, with veils flowing down over their tutus. (The costumes have been rented from San Diego Ballet). To capture the sensation of the mountains' heights, the 20 women who perform the memorable opening line dance will descend to the stage on a challenging downhill ramp.

"I'm really glad to have so many rehearsals," Chieko says with satisfaction when the rehearsal is over. "The more we do it, the tighter it gets."

Ballet Tucson's annual Dance & Dessert concert typically is a smorgasbord of eight or 10 short dances. This year, with the longish "Kingdom of the Shades" taking up all of the program's second half, there are just six works. Fortunately for lovers of the dessert side of the concert's equation, the pastries, cookies and cakes donated by local restaurants will be in their usual abundance after the concert.

The first half of the show begins with "Cascades," a lively contemporary work by guest choreographer Kim Robards, who runs the eponymous Kim Robards Dance Company in Denver. Danced twice before by Ballet Tucson, in 2008 and 2012, this reprise gives the troupe's current dancers the chance to try out Robards' exuberant style.

It's a "beautiful, high-energy" piece, Imada says, for 15 dancers, five men and 10 women.

Contemporary gives way to in the traditional "Don Quixote" pas de deux, excerpted from a full-length ballet. Interestingly, "Don Quixote" was another Petipa-Minkus collaboration, a four-act ballet that premiered at the Bolshoi in 1869, eight years before the arrival of La Bayadère.

The roles are double-cast: Johnson and Davis will alternate the parts with Vasily Lunde and Laura Lunde, a real-life couple.

"Monster," a piece for 10 dancers set to the music of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, was choreographed by dancer Connolly Strombeck, a soloist in the company. It comes out of ChoreoLab, a Ballet Tucson project that allows dancers to try their hand—and feet—at choreographing new dances. "Monster," the first work to make it from lab to stage, is "modern and contemporary," Imada says, but it's danced in ballet shoes.

Company balletmaster Daniel Precup has become a prolific choreographer, specializing in neoclassical and contemporary ballet. His latest, "Ferae Naturae," Latin for wild beasts, is a solo for Jenna Johnson and Isaiah Sumler.

Sam Watson, teacher and artist in residence at the UA School of Dance, choreographs comic works that are a mashup of jazz and modern dance, with a little vaudeville thrown in for humorous measure. This time around he sets his "Hi Jinks" on 10 Ballet Tucson dancers.

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