Out of Africa

The Ivory Coast's Tchétché dance troupe is thoroughly modern.

Two years ago, UApresents executive director Ken Foster flew to a dance festival in Berlin. Normally, international arts gatherings are one of the pleasures of his job, but this one turned out to be a lugubrious exercise in German Expressionism, full of dancers in black and empty of joyous movement.

"I was going crazy," Foster said last week. "I was dying of boredom. Then I saw there was an African dance company on the program. I thought, 'Well, at least it's not German Expressionism.'"

What it was was Tchétché, a powerful all-woman's modern-dance troupe from the Ivory Coast. Foster was stunned.

"It was incredible," he said. "I had never seen anything like it. It was one of the major arts experiences of my life."

Their work is "contemporary African choreography. It's extremely powerful and visual. The choreography is amazing and the dancers are amazing."

Tucsonans get a chance to judge for themselves when Tchétché dances here in two concerts, Thursday and Friday night at the UA's Crowder Hall. In another week packed with dance--see below for a look at a modern-dance Solstice Celebration and the season's final Nutcracker--the small African troupe performs its second-ever American concert right here in the Old Pueblo. The four women of Tchétché are not on a regular tour. Artists-in- residence this semester at the University of Florida, the women are doing concerts only in Florida and Tucson. When Foster got wind of their Florida gig, he called Joan Frosch, head of the UF dance department, and arranged to have the dancers come out to perform here at semester's end.

On the program is a single long work, Sans Repère, which the company just premiered in Florida. Typically the performances include a live vocalist and musicians on stage, Foster said. Founded in 1997 by choreographer Beatrice Kombé, the company takes its name from the West African Bete word for "eagle." Not only is this African company unusual in not doing traditional African dance, it's downright unique in its all-woman composition.

"In a place where men dominate the field in contemporary dance, they're an all-female contemporary troupe." Foster said. "They're African and they work off that, but their work is very contemporary. They're of a traditional background but not traditional."

THE LOCAL MODERN troupe ZUZI! Move It Dance Company stages its fifth annual Solstice Celebration this weekend. Designed as an alternative to the ubiquitous Christmas-flavored Nutcrackers, Solistice goes back to older festivals of light held to mark the longest, and darkest, day of winter.

"It's about shadow and light at that time of year," explained company co-artistic director Nanette Robinson. "In ancestral time, what was it like? Almost every culture has a solstice story, with fire, light and storytelling."

The ZUZI! version combines the company's professional dancers with community members, the latter all participants in an eight-week workshop that "generated movement." Ten children will also perform in the show, which has an all-new set this year. Woven in with the community pieces are works choreographed by company members. Peggy Paver debuts "Uluru," a piece for five dancers about Australian dream time. Beth Braun's "Skyscraper" also is a dance for five, while Robinson's "Reach for the Dawn" has seven dancers performing on light wooden ladders. Yumi Shirai partners with Mari Kaneda, an older teacher of traditional Japanese dance, for a work that "blends modern and traditional," said Robinson. "It's very sweet."

In keeping with ancient solstice celebrations, the evening will also feature a storyteller, Lorene Jayson, recounting "The Light Box," and songs and chants throughout. The concert "brings the audience in," Robinson said, "asking how they'll bring the light into their lives."

THIS WEEKEND IS the last chance to catch The Nutcracker in Tucson this year. The longest-running Nut in town, Ballet Tucson's Victorian version features more than 120 dancers, including students from Ballet Arts school and young professionals in the company. American Ballet Theater's Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, who danced with ABT and also with White Oak Project, guest star as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. The ABT duo will dance Friday and Saturday nights, while at the Saturday matinee Gina Ribera, formerly of the Cleveland and Norwegian ballets, partners with Matthew Carter, formerly of the Ohio Ballet.

The company moved its production last year to Centennial Hall, which makes a sumptuous setting for its painted Victorian backdrops and falling snow. Choreographed primarily by Mary Beth Cabana, the troupe's artistic director and a former dancer with Cleveland Ballet, this Nutcracker has an intricate snow scene so lovely it surpasses Ballet Arizona's. Look for Tucson's own Mayor Bob Walkup in the Saturday matinee's party scene.

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