Pas de Deux

Two performances bring Tucson's best dancers to the stage.

A gaggle of Tucson's best modern dancers will be performing in town this weekend. The only problem is, they'll be splitting their talents between two competing concerts.

Beth Braun's Dance Partnership on Saturday night stages The Journey Continues, a reprise of her inaugural concert of last year. Braun has snagged Orts dancers Charles Thompson and Nicole Buffan, Zuzi's Nanette Robinson and Nancy Mellan, and independent dancer Nathan Dryden, among others. Braun, formerly of Orts, dances herself and gets the lion's share of the choreography credit for the evening-length work.

Funhouse Movement Theater is up Friday and Saturday nights with Hot Dawgs and Cool Tunes, performed by Orts' Matt Henley, NEW ARTiculations' Tammy Rosen, independent Mark English and others. A dance company started by Thom Lewis, an ex-Tenth Streeter, and Lee Anne Hartley, who has worked with Orts, Funhouse is in its second year as well. Its founders also will dance in the concert, for which each has composed a long theatrical dance, Lewis going to the dogs in "Pup Fiction," and Hartley celebrating her parents in the nostalgic "As Time Goes By."

The competition for dancers for the two concerts got fierce.

"It was crazy for a while as we were trying to get our casts together," acknowledges Braun. When she contacted dancers about joining her show, she'd hear "Thom and Lee Anne already called me."

Neither company has dancers to call its own--both pick and choose as needed. The scheduling conflict arises in part from a happily jam-packed dance season that has left almost no recent weekend without dance. But both the Braun and Funhouse concerts offer something distinct, and all three artistic directors are hoping to reach beyond the conventional modern dance audience. And luckily dance fans can see both.

"They have Friday night to see Thom and Lee Anne's, and Saturday night to see us," says Braun.

The Journey Continues is a musical collaboration with Braun's partner Arthur Miscione, a musician, composer and songwriter. Her cast of 18 adult dancers and nine children will perform at the Historic YWCA to a band playing his songs live. The Miscione musicians, including Miscione himself, John Neighbors, Michael Dombrowski, Bob Huath and Aisha Ahmad-Post, play guitar, bass guitar, percussion, keyboard, slide guitar, dobro, mandolin, violin and upright bass.

The modern dance work "is based on a life journey," Braun explains. "There are nine separate dances, with different sub-titles. 'Innocence' goes into 'Despair' and 'Struggle.' The second half starts with 'Hope,' 'Love,' 'Enlightenment' and 'Joy.'"

Braun choreographed most of the pieces, including a solo for herself, but four of her leading dancers composed their own solos for "Struggle." Dryden's trapeze solo is called "Suicide Notes," Buffan composed "Trace of Sorrow" and Thompson "Unloved." Helanius J. Wilkins, a guest artist from Washington, D.C., who is new to the piece this year, choreographed "Michael's Song." (Last year Orts' Henley composed the dance for the latter piece.)

"We have so many new dancers this year, that I re-choreographed some sections," Braun adds. "Last year in one piece I had four dancers, this year there are 10 in it. With new people always comes new inspiration." The Zuzi dancers, including Yumi Shirai are new this year, and so are five high school dancers, advanced students at University/Rincon High. The whole company comes together in "Struggle."

"We have a real diverse age range, and they're each struggling. It's really pretty strong. We're all in that place sometime; we connect with others or we're alone in our struggle."

The Journey Continues also highlights an explicit struggle in the real world. Last year's concert, The Journey, raised money for the UMC transplant program, in honor of Miscione's nephew Jim Smith, age 28, who has now survived 13 years with a donor heart. This year, Braun says, "We're establishing a new pediatric transplant fund (at UMC). One of our main intents is to spread awareness of the need for organ and tissue donation."

Smith himself, now a medical student, will dance with the troupe, as he did last year. He'll also address the audience, along with another transplant survivor, John Landers, who celebrates his wedding anniversary the night of the concert. Also speaking will be Don Coleman Jr., father of a newborn son who thrived after getting a heart transplant.

"We really feel this is a way to do what we do, to use our art to help our community," Braun says. "John and Jim wouldn't be here today without heart transplants. It changes your life, knowing somebody is alive today after receiving this gift."

BOTH HARTLEY AND LEWIS agree that their narrative dances push Funhouse's Hot Dawgs and Cool Tunes in the direction of musical theatre.

"We're trying to reach a broader audience, with different dance forms," Hartley explains. "I'll let others put labels on it. We tend to be more interested in telling stories."

The concert opener, Lewis's "Pup Fiction," is a "contemporary ballet about where your dog goes when he runs away," Lewis says. "It's about how we see dogs, the way we anthropomorphize them. We have dog costumes, but we have a human face."

Though the work is dedicated to his "perfect dog" Maisie, who died a year and a half ago, it was nonetheless inspired by Maisie's naughty predecessor, Fergus, who constantly ran away. Lewis remembers telling his stepdaughter, "Don't worry about Fergus. He's down in Nogales running a taco stand."

The dogs in Lewis' dance piece have equally exotic homes away from home. Matt Henley dances the lead runaway, Buster, who tends to head off to places like the Pit Bull Bar, home of Minnie the Poocher (Julia Miller), a "floozy dog with a heart of gold, and three red bras." Jack and Jacqueline Wiley, formerly of the Santa Barbara Ballet, dance the doggy parts of Bones and Jessica; Tammy Rosen is Lucille ("We call 'ball, ball' to her") and Lewis himself is the narrator dog, who occasionally takes a stab at playing accordion.

"There are six adult performers, seven if you include Lee Anne--she's part of a giant cat." Six kids play pound puppies, and two middle school students provide a bit of live music: Claire Graham sings and Andrew Halchak plays sax and bass guitar.

The recorded music swings from West Side Story to '80s rock to Tom Waits to the Sim City video game theme song.

Hartley's piece, "As Time Goes By," draws on a rich mixture of music from the '40s and '50s, with recorded pieces by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, and television-inspired music, including the theme from The Lone Ranger and "Happy Trails."

The music conjures up her parents' marriage, which ended in 1959 when her dad, a Davis-Monthan pilot, was killed in an accident on a routine mission. Her mother, who later happily remarried, died in 1992. The dance was "inspired by a box of letters I discovered that my dad wrote my mom over their marriage," Hartley says. They corresponded every day when the young pilot was off on tours of duty. "They're such sweet letters; the tone is kind and loving."

Though the work cuts close to home emotionally, Hartley says it's not sad; rather it's a "celebration of their lives--it's a happy thing, a fun thing to re-visit."

Hartley organized the piece around two real letters--written around the time her parents met and when they married--and around a third, imaginary letter, one her father might have written when his two children married. Lewis dances the part of her father, and Kristen Widmer, her mother. Seven dancers, including Hartley, round out the cast. The women, she says, are delighted with the array of period costumes, all of them made from sewing patterns her mother kept from the early years. There are "swing dresses, waltz dresses, a vamp dress. Even a cowgirl outfit with fringe on the bottom. I have had a blast making the costumes. They look good on everybody."

Like the Braun troupe, Funhouse also has a community service mission, "doing outreach to schools," Hartley says. This year four school-loads of kids who've gone through a Funhouse residency will come to special school matinees. The co-artistic directors say the troupe is doing well as it heads into its second year.

"One show a year is enough for now," Lewis says. "The idea is not to break the budget. We're doing well."

Beth Braun Dance Partnership performs The Journey Continues, a benefit for the UMC Pediatric Transplant Fund, at 8 p.m., Saturday, March 31, at the Historic YWCA, at Fifth Avenue and University Boulevard. A silent auction begins at 7:30 p.m. A reception follows the concert, with food included in the ticket price. Tickets are $10. For reservations call 320-5574.

Funhouse Movement Theater presents Hot Dawgs and Cool Tunes at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, at Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $8 and $10 in advance at Antigone Books and Bentley's, and $10 and $12 at the door. For reservations and information call 749-1221.

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