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Mixed Bouquet 

Opera singers join Ballet Tucson dancers for the live-music Valentine concert

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Opera often ends in tragedy. Not this time.

The nine opera excerpts to be sung live at Ballet Tucson's winter concert this weekend are love songs, all about the joys of amore.

They're drawn from nine of the most-cherished operas in the repertory—Rigoletto, Tosca, The Merry Widow, La Traviata. Admittedly some of these operas do end in death—La Bohème is a case in point—but the arias and duets that will be performed concentrate on the sunny side of love.

"There's a Valentine theme to the concert," aptly named Love Songs & Other Dances, says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana. "Every dance has something to do with love and romance."

Love Songs, the concert's "big new dance," is a collection on of nine short dances choreographed by the company's Daniel Precup. Danced to live music played by Tucsonan Marie Sierra at the piano, the songs will be sung by Bernardo Bermudez, a lyric baritone whose voice thrilled the Ballet Tucson audience in a concert last winter, and soprano Victoria Robertson.

"Victoria has a beautiful voice," Cabana says. "She's Bernardo's regular singing partner. They're both really good singers. We're been rehearsing to their recordings."

The Venezuelan-born Bermudez, now based in California, regularly performs in opera houses around the country and has sung in many of the operas excerpted in the new dance, including Rigoletto and La Bohème. Robertson, a newcomer to Ballet Tucson, frequently partners with Bermudez. She also travels widely, performing opera and art song, as well as musical theater. For seven years, she sang for military troops as Miss U.S.O.

The Love Songs concert marks the fourth time Ballet Tucson has partnered with the Tucson Desert Song Festival, a weeks-long series of collaborative concerts designed to celebrate voice. (It's the last show on this year's festival roster.) Adding live singers to a dance performance helps attract new audiences, Cabana says. Last year, "not only did we get great feedback on Bernardo from our inner-circle of ballet patrons, but also from the Song Festival patrons. The festival is good for us."

The dance "Love Songs" features most of Ballet Tucson's complement of 28 dancers, dancing in various combinations, primarily solos, but also in trios and large groups. Among the performers will be one of the troupe's male leads, Isaiah Sumler, who's back working with the troupe after a half-year hiatus dancing on a cruise ship in the Pacific.

"We're thrilled to have him again," Cabana says. "He's so charismatic and unique."

Prima ballerina Jenna Johnson and this year's guest artist, Fredrick Davis, dance a duet from Bizet's The Pearl Fishers. The opera dates from 1863, but the pair will don contemporary unitards the color of wine.

By contrast, in the large group piece from La Traviata, the popular 1853 opera by Verdi, the women will dress in "beautiful period ball gowns," Cabana says, stitched in copper and teal taffeta, while the men will wear 19th-century formal dress, with jackets and lacey jabots.

Love Songs takes up the whole of Act II, while two other major dances, performed to recorded music, make up Act I.

Shakespeare's braying man-turned-donkey Bottom opens up the concert with a humorous excerpt from Ballet Tucson's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, set to music by Mendelssohn.

Connolly Strombeck is "really enjoying learning how to work the donkey mask," Cabana says. Caitlin Calligan is Titania, the queen of fairies, who falls in love with the preposterous creature. The choreography, by Cabana and assistant artistic director Chieko Amada, dates back to a full production last performed in 2008.

The Shakespearean dance is part of a package of three classic ballet duets. The second is White Swan Pas de Deux, after Petipa, borrowed from a 2012 Ballet Tucson production. The excerpt features real-life wife and husband Laura and Vasily Lunde dancing to Tchaikovsky's score—but not together. The piece is double cast: Laura dances the duet with Mauricio Vegara in some performances, while Vasily partners with Megan Steffens in others.

Precup brings all new movement to a duet from Romeo et Juliette. The choreographer's wife, Jenna Johnson dances to the Prokofiev music with Davis, her partner in Love Songs. The pair take on the classic balcony scene between the thunderstruck young lovers.

Closing out Act One with another premiere, frequent guest choreographer Mark Schneider goes forward in time, way forward, with his In the Mood for the full company. Over a sultry 40 minutes, the dancers swing and sashay through Schneider's interpretations of five big-band hits.

The opening "Moonlight Serenade" is a romantic dance in black and white, with the women in gowns and the men in tuxedos. The jazzy "Song of India" has the female dancers in turbans and armbands that look like snakes winding up their arms. Then it's on to "Tuxedo Junction" and "Little Brown Jug," before the work closes with the sexy Valentine "In the Mood."

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