Lovers in the Air

Ballet Tucson leaps into 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'

A large mask of an ass arrived one day last week at the Ballet Tucson studio.

But artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana wasn't the least bit alarmed by the odd delivery. It wasn't a message from the Mafia or anything. No, the ass mask is for Bottom (Joe McGrath) to wear when he's transformed into a lowly donkey in the company's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"I just got the mask yesterday," Cabana said excitedly by phone. "It's really something. I commissioned it from the mask-maker at Pacific Northwest Ballet," a leading troupe located in Seattle.

Ballet Tucson's first production of the Shakespearean classic will be performed by a cast of 125 this Thursday and Friday night at Centennial Hall. For this dance version of what is perhaps the Bard's most visually delightful play--set in a fairy forest outside ancient Athens--Cabana commissioned all new sets, costumes and masks. Queen Titania's fairy troops will wear ethereal custom-made togs by Californian Joanna MacMillan of Watercolour Dancewear ("they're beautiful for the fairies"). Co-designer Madelene Maxwell of Tucson dreamed up all new outfits for the show's mixed-up human lovers and its legions of nature sprites, imps, brownies and butterflies.

McGrath, a Julliard-trained actor who takes the part of the hapless workman transformed to an ass by the vengeful fairy king Oberon, also created the suitably woodsy sets. His Sonoran Theatreworks painted forest backdrops. Tree trunks, a giant magic flower and a commodious bird's nest will also sprout on stage. There's even a swinging vine for the mischievous Puck, played by UA dance student César Rubio, who, Cabana said, "has a good comedic flair."

Cabana has imported some star dancers to share the stage with local adult pros and her studio's advanced students and little kids. Gina Ribera, who danced the lead in Ballet Tucson's Cinderella last year and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, will perform Titania, the fairy queen who falls in love, temporarily, with the ass. Ribera has been a principal with Oakland Ballet Company, National Ballet of Norway and Cleveland Ballet. For the fairy king, her true love Oberon, "We got the partner she prefers," Cabana said.

That partner, Harald Uwe Kern, is an international prize winner, a Viennese who trained at the ballet school of the Vienna State Opera. Kern has worked with the Joffrey, the Basel (Switzerland) Ballet, Ballet Internationale and the Vienna State Opera Ballet.

The quartet of young human lovers, who spend a demented evening chasing the wrong partners in the enchanted woods, are undertaken by Ahiram Paul Belleau (Lysander), a former Cabana student who has danced with Dance Theater of Harlem; and Ballet Tucson's Thom Gilliam (Demetrius), Deanna Doncsecz (Helena) and Hayley Kisiel (Hermia).

The brand-new choreography for the ballet in two acts is a collaboration by Cabana, assistant artistic director Chieko Imada and resident choreographer Mark Schneider. They're following some rather distinguished artists.

Shakespeare first wrote the comic play in 1594 or 1595, and the famous Russian Marius Petipa choreographed the first known ballet version nearly 300 years later, in 1876. Petipa used music by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, who had written an overture for the play in 1826, and added "incidental music" in 1843. Another Russian, Mikhail Fokine, tackled it in 1906, and the émigré Russian George Balanchine undertook his own interpretation in 1962. Performed by the New York City Ballet, Balanchine's was the first American Midsummer Night's Dream.

Ballet Tucson took on the project because "I was looking to expand our repertory," Cabana said, noting that the troupe has staged both Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel in recent years, along with the annual Nutcracker.

"This hasn't been seen much in Tucson--certain ballets are done to death," she said. "I was looking for a recognizable, full-length ballet. It's a very good family story, and it's a comedy. And Mendelssohn's music is very beautiful."

The Shakespeare text, which bequeathed such phrases as "Lord, what fools these mortals be" to the English language, tells a three-layered story. There are multiple romances at the Athenian court, magical spells and tricks in the fairy forest, and a play-within-a-play by comical Elizabethan laborers. Dancers, of course, can't use the Shakespearean poetry to explain this fractured fairy tale. Ballet Tucson has pared the story down a bit, while retaining all the major characters.

"We're simplifying it a little," Cabana said, "and each character is introduced in the overture."

And it becomes all the more important for the dancers to evoke the story through movement. Cabana said she's confident her company, going into its 18th year, has the skills to do it. The love between the fairy queen and Bottom the ass, for instance, is rendered in a "romantic pas de deux."

"I'm excited," she said. "It's going to be lovely."

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