Moving Along

Ballet Tucson bucks the trend and ends a successful second pro season with 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'

A Midsummer Night's Dream could go by any number of names.

When Hermia Loved Lysander. Or, When Lysander Left Hermia for Helena. Or even, When the Fairy Queen Loved an Ass.

The perennial Shakespeare favorite is a kaleidoscope of incongruous couples, darting by night among the flowers and bowers in a magical summer forest. The lovers switch loyalties so easily that the goblin Puck, observing their shenanigans, famously observes, "Lord, what fools these mortals be."

But the intricate storyline has not deterred Tucson's only professional ballet company from taking on the beloved comedy for its season finale.

"The story is complex," acknowledges Mary-Beth Cabana, artistic director of Ballet Tucson. "But you break it down into scenes and add the comedic element. It's understandable to kids."

Ballet Tucson stages the full-length ballet this Saturday and Sunday at Centennial Hall at the UA.

"It's family-oriented and colorful," Cabana says. "It's humorous. This is a pretty production."

With its panoply of fairies and sprites, high-born princes and raucous carpenters, and lovely young people in love, the story is well nigh irresistible to ballet companies.

The Russian choreographer Petipa made a Midsummer Night's Dream ballet in 1876, followed by Fokine in 1906. George Balanchine used the story for his first full-length ballet for New York City Ballet back in 1962, pairing the forest antics with music by Mendelssohn.

English choreographer Frederick Ashton's 1964 version for the Royal Ballet, The Dream, is still performed by American Ballet Theater, Cabana says. Televised on PBS with ABT's Ethan Stiefel starring, "The Dream is the definitive version."

Ballet Tucson first staged the ballet several years ago, enlisting the advanced students in its Ballet Arts studio. This time around, with the troupe coming to the end of its second professional season, professional dancers will dance all the lead roles.

The young company's stars, husband-and-wife team Daniel Precup and Jenna Johnson, will take on the parts of Oberon and Titania, the warring king and queen of the fairies. Ahiram Belleau, Mark Krieger, Deanna Doncsecz and Melanie Hawkes play the lovers addled by magic drops. César Rubio is the naughty Puck. Joseph McGrath dances Bottom, the weaver who sprouts a donkey's head and becomes the object of the fairy queen's devotion.

"It's carried by our professional dancers," Cabana boasts. Now employing 11 pro dancers, the troupe also uses experienced teen dancers from Ballet Arts. The cast of 100 also includes dozens of little kids pirouetting about as fairies, brownies, imps and hobgoblins. Puck has his own entourage.

The ballet is in two acts, and with intermission lasts about two hours. Co-choreographed by Cabana, company choreographer Mark Schneider and assistant artistic director Chieko Imada, the production is danced to recorded Mendelssohn music.

"We tweaked it since last time," Cabana says. "That was our first draft. It's essentially the same, but we've refined it."

The painted sets, locally produced by Sonora Theatre Works, colorfully re-create the leafy nighttime woods.

"Oberon's kingdom is cool trees, the stars and moon," Cabana says. "There's an arch with heavy foliage."

Forest creatures--such as a frog--are painted larger than life. Titania's bower, where she takes her new love, Bottom the Ass, "is a big beautiful bird nest, filled with rose petals. There's a giant rose arch. At the end, when Oberon straightens everything out, there's a wedding, and beautiful garlands drop from the ceiling."

The fairies and sprits dance in "water-color" tights and leotards, and ankle-length dresses in tones of peach, pink, coral and rose. Puck wears a half-unitard in the greens and browns of the forest; chiffon moss dangles from his legs.

In the busy weeks leading up to the concert, Cabana has also been tweaking the ranks for the company's third season. She recently conducted auditions in Chicago and New York, and plans a third audition in Tucson June 3. She may reduce the number of pro dancers to eight or 10 in the coming year, and add six to eight paid apprentices.

Three Ballet Arts students have already made verbal commitments to become apprentices. She says she's delighted to hire kids she's trained.

"We're getting to the place of the missing link," she says. "Typically, we train these kids for 10 years and then we lose them" to jobs in other cities. "Now this will be a great first stop for them."

The résumés and videos she's been getting from dancers around the country testify to the troubled state of ballet, she says. Some of the applicants have recently lost jobs at companies that folded, including troupes in Augusta, Ga., and Indianapolis. The most high-profile new company, Ballet Pacifica in Orange County, Calif., never even got off the ground, when the board failed to raise enough money.

"The industry is imploding," she says, while her own company is managing to stay afloat.

"We've been slowly getting to this point--we took 20 years to turn pro. Sometimes being in a place like Tucson is a good thing. It hasn't been a piece of cake, but people are enthusiastic. Things are moving along nicely."

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