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Dancing on the Edge

As a UA undergrad in the mid-'70s, choreographer Thom Lewis' study of dance began almost by accident. Enrolled as an architecture student, Lewis signed up for a fencing class because architecture was "too much sitting around."

Lewis frequently took a detour through the dance studio to get to his fencing class. One day while watching the dance students, he was asked a question that would change the course of his life. The instructor looked at him and asked, "Do you know how to pick up girls?"

Picking up girls might have been a common pastime for college students in the '70s, but that's not what the instructor was referring to. The class was in need of dancers who could physically lift women. Lewis says he was on the tumbling team in high school and had a faculty for that. He signed up, and a career was born.

"I never planned to go into dance," recalls Lewis. "It happened by accident. It was all unplanned."

With an extensive performance history including Orts Theatre of Dance and Tenth Street Danceworks, Lewis now sees himself as a choreographer. As a partner with Lee Anne Hartley in the FUNHOUSE movement theater, Lewis creates contemporary dance pieces that sometimes tell stories in unconventional ways.

His piece "Precipice" is described in a news release as a "stream of consciousness autobiography about being at the edge, on the edge and sometimes just edgy." "Precipice" is the solo from Lewis' "Indo-China Redux," which won Best Dance Production runner-up honors in the Weekly's Best of TucsonTM 2004. "Indo-China Redux" is about a soldier in Vietnam, but also refers to the war in Iraq and war itself.

"Precipice" will be performed as one of the works of FUNHOUSE Movement' Theater's five-piece production On the Edge at 8 p.m., Friday, March 24, and Saturday, March 25, at Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, 1713 E. University Blvd. Tickets are $10 to $12 in advance, available at Antigone Books. Tickets are the door will be $12 to $14. Call 749-1221 for information.

Other pieces include Hartley's "The Empty Chair," a quartet for women. "It's about a death of a family member. The boy who died is (represented) in video images. A sister, aunt, mother and girlfriend deal with loss, anger, pain and even hope ... as they deal with the loss of a family member," says Lewis.

The "Wild West of Physics" shows Hartley's comical side, as she uses elements of vaudeville in a five-section dance, accompanied by Chuck Koesters.

An unnamed French-style Apache dance presents a "male-female duet of 'rough trade' characters, performed to a demo version of Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the U.S.A.' ... There's no mistake that 'Born in the U.S.A.' is not a jingoistic anthem,'" says Lewis.

"Dreaming Under Fire--the Myth of Prometheus and the American Tragedy in Vietnam" is a solo "about the moment in time a soldier is hit to the time the soldier leaves the body. ... It's specifically about the Vietnam War, but it refers to all war," says Lewis.

"Dreaming Under Fire" might be a good example of the essence of contemporary dance. "In plays, there's a compression of time. In two hours, it tells what happened during two or three weeks. In dance, we expand time. It may take a few moments for a soldier to die, but in this dance, it takes five minutes," explains Lewis.

Contemporary dance also differs from ballet. While both tell stories, "ballet tells a story in a linear sense," says Lewis. "Contemporary dance borrows from modern dance, ballet and jazz and often tells stories, but not always in a linear sequence. ... You take an idea and bend it around, mess with the time, space and energy of it. It becomes a larger or obscure gesture."

Getting the mind around more abstract gestures and concepts of dance is something Lewis teaches at Tucson Unified School District schools in the area. As part of the national Opening Minds Through the Arts program, Lewis teaches second-grade students twice a week at Duffy Elementary School. He also visits fifth-graders weekly at Hudlow Elementary School.

"The national project teaches art through curriculum. Schools that have the program have tested higher than schools who aren't involved with the program. ... It's a challenge to get kids to think abstractly. TV is such a big influence. TV tells you what to think. Art will get you to think."

And Lewis is keen on that concept. "People leave contemporary dance shows and say, 'What the heck is that?' That's not good. It should invite them in and make them think. It has its abstractions, but it's designed for the thinking human to get."

While Lewis is interested in having thinking audience members, he is careful not to tell them what to think. "It depends on what the audience brings in. You have to fall back and see what happens. ... Why would I tell someone how much to read into a dance?

"This is not designed for other dancers. It's designed for people. At the end of a performance, the person who comes up and starts with, 'I don't know much about dance' ... What they say is wonderful. They are getting me to think."

A new way of thinking is perhaps the theme behind FUNHOUSE. With nonlinear stories, pop music and a variety of dance styles, it turns dance on its edge. True to its name, each viewer will see pieces in a new light, just as they would see themselves through a carnival funhouse mirror.

More by Irene Messina

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