Mid-Century Madness

Modernism Week showcases a dance studio, houses, art and even vintage trailers

It was the early '60s and Barbara Mettler had just arrived in Tucson, ready to build a dance studio in the desert.

She had a large plot rich in cacti and creosote on the outskirts of town—at Cherry and Fort Lowell—with views of Finger Rock in the Catalinas. What she needed was an architect whose aesthetic matched her own über-modernism.

The dance pioneer found her match right here in Arizona, at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's western outpost. She hired not the master himself but an acolyte who'd been called the "pencil in Wright's hand." John H. Howe—whose exquisite architectural drawings are gathered in a new book—was a talented architect in his own right. And he and Mettler had a meeting of the minds.

"They really hit it off," says dancer Carole Marlowe, who works part-time at the studio. "He was liberal and a conscientious objector," in World War II. "He loved her ideas."

Mettler's Tucson Creative Dance Center, the 1963 studio that resulted from the pair's collaboration, will be featured during Tucson Modernism Week, Saturday, Oct. 7, through Sunday, Oct. 15.

The building has all the typical traits of Tucson modernism, from its humble materials of cinder block and wood, to the shape of its studio-in-the-round and matching flying-saucer roof, and its triangles and curves radiating out from the center. And its studio windows that provide a nearly 360-degree view of desert sky and mountains.

"The building was built to allow her form of dance," Marlowe says. "She was experimental and she wanted the building to reflect her work: it's improv,[cq improve] it's movement, it's creativity. You're not doing prescribed steps."

Born in Chicago in 1907 to wealthy parents and raised lake side in the country, Mettler came late to a serious study of dance. She majored in English at Smith College, but after seeing an avant-garde dance performance in 1930 she went right to the then-epicenter of modern movement: Weimar Germany. But her studies with dance pioneer Mary Wigman were interrupted in 1933 by the rise of Hitler.

Back in the U.S., she started over.

"I had to begin at the beginning and seek for myself the fundamentals of the art," Mettler wrote in later life. Based in New York and in a farm in New Hampshire, she returned to the "inspiration only nature provides," according to program notes. She formed a dance company devoted to improvisation, and taught and performed up and down the East Coast.

In her mid-50s, she transplanted herself into the Arizona desert. She taught out of her circular studio and started another improv dance troupe. Working out of the mirror-less studio, the dancers created movement "coming from the inside," Marlowe says. "It's not about 'how I look.'"

Mettler died at 95 in 2002. She bequeathed the studio and large desert lot to the Nature Conservancy. The conservancy built a headquarters on the property, but the studio is still used for dance.

"The work of Barbara Mettler is a real gift," Marlowe says. "Anybody can do it.

Modernism Week Events at the Mettler studio, 3131 N. Cherry Ave. For tickets, see preservetucson.org/modernism-week.

2 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 8. Mary Ann Brehm, Ph.D., will do a lecture/demonstration titled "Barbara Mettler's Pioneering Vision of Dance at the Tucson Creative Dance Center." The presentation includes videos and photos of Mettler Free.

Mettler-based Dance Improvisation Classes. Classes for adults only; those with no dance experience welcome. Wear loose, comfortable clothing and arrive ahead of time. $10 a class.

5:30 to 7 p.m, Wed., Oct. 11, Sound and Movement class.

10 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Oct. 14. Relationships to Time, Space & Force class.

Related lecture at Faith Lutheran Church, 3925 E. Fifth St.

Noon to 1:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 14. Minnesota architect Tim Quigley, co-author of a book on Howe, architect of the Mettler Studio, gives a lecture at Faith Lutheran Church, "John H. Howe, from Taliesin to Master of Organic Design." Quigley's book is John H. Howe, Architect: From Taliesin Apprentice to Master of Organic Design. $10. A ticket allowing entry to all lectures during the week is $45.  

Other Modernism Week Events

Put together by the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, the popular Modernism Week is nine days and nights jam-packed with films, lectures and tours illuminating modernism in art and architecture in mid-20th-century Tucson. The celebration runs from Saturday, Oct. 7 through Sunday, Oct. 15. For a complete schedule, and to buy tickets, visit preservetucson.org/modernism-week. Some events are already sold out.

Here's a sampling.

New York Times writer Guy Trebay hosts a screening of Bill Cunningham New York, a lovable documentary about the lovable late fashion photographer. 4 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 8, at the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd. $8. Tickets available through The Loft or on the Modernism Week site.

The Vintage Trailer Show runs two days, Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 14 and 15, at 2419 E. Broadway. A dozen cute-as-a-button trailers occupy the Sunshine Mile, along with their proud owners, who'll be pleased to let you inside. $10.

The popular Home Tour unrolls on the final day, Sunday, Oct. 15, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Visitors on the self-guided tour can go to houses designed by architects Judith Chafee, Kirby Lockard, Juan Worner Baz and Bennie Gonzales. $30. Tickets and brochures at Preservation Foundation Headquarters at 2924 E. Broadway.

The exhibition Vera Paints Sunshine: The Art of Vera Neumann kicks off from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Sunshine Shop Tucson, in the old Hirsh's Shoes building at 2934 E. Broadway. Show continues through Nov. 6. The mid-century artist's famed Vera scarves, as well as paintings and housewares, are now collected in major museums like MOMA and the Met. Tucson artist Carrie Seid lectures on Neumann at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14, at Christ Methodist Church, 655 N. Craycroft Road. $10.

Katya Peterson gives a talk Cele Peterson: Personal Memories, about her mother, the beloved Tucson fashion icon and businesswoman, at 4:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 14, at Christ Methodist Church, 655 N. Craycroft Road. $10.

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