On a crisp night last week at the Tucson Botanical Gardens, the autumn plants were shimmering in the light of a half-moon.
Lamps were lit throughout the nighttime garden and the cheerful chatter from a wedding party wafted through the trees. Elsewhere, startling Calavera Catrina statues, installed here and there along the paths in honor of Días de los Muertos, grinned their skeletal teeth at passersby.
But most surprising on this magical night were the live dancers twirling and leaping under the stars.
For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March, the dancers of Tucson Ballet were doing what they're meant to do: dance.
The mini-concert, just 20 minutes long, opened with a solo for Jenna Johnson, the troupe's revered prima ballerina. Dressed in black sneakers (toe shoes wouldn't do on the stone floor), black tights and T, and the inevitable black mask across her face, Johnson was grace itself as she moved her limbs, her torso, her head.
The modern choreography, by her husband, Daniel Precup, the company's ballet master, was set to snippets of famous ballet scores. Giving a nod to both contemporary dance and to traditional ballet, the work was not only an ode to dance, but an ode to joy in these tough times.
The short pop-up concert was just the first of five outdoor shows the company will perform over the next month and a half, all of them in popular outdoor venues.
"I'm very excited to have this opportunity for our dancers and to share their wonderful energy and the beauty of this art with our audience through these new Pop Up Performances," Chieko Imada, the troupe's associate artistic director, said in an email. "I hope that this offering to our Tucson community will enable us to explore more engagement opportunities in the future."
Next up is the Tucson Museum of Art, this Sunday, Nov. 15. Dancing on the museum's patio, the performers will repeat the works that debuted at the Botanical Gardens last week, including skeleton dances evoking the Day of the Dead.
The three December pop-up shows shift away from Day of the Dead and into to holiday mood, complete with a taste of the Nutcracker. Alas, the popular Christmas ballet will not be performed this year, but fans will get to see an outtake: Johnson will dance the ballet's beloved Sugar Plum Fairy solo. Other holiday pieces will feature the advanced student dancers of Ballet Tucson 2.
These seasonal shows will be played out at Reid Park Zoo, Dec. 5, during the Zoo Lights festival; at Tucson Botanical Gardens, Dec. 12; and at St. Philip's Plaza Farmers Market, Dec. 20.
The company last performed in early March, in the annual Dance and Desert show, on the weekend when arts venues in Tucson were shuttering en masse. Then in August, the fall season was cancelled. No season opening concert, no Nutcracker at Christmas. Dancers scattered. The troupe's finances were dire.
But in a happy turn, a successful fundraising campaign brought in $100,000. They needed then, says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana, to get the company back out into the community.
With most indoor performing venues still shut down, the company came up with the idea of doing short, "very informal performances" outdoors, she says. COVID experts advise events to be moved outside, the better for performers and audiences to escape the virus's respiratory droplets. And Tucson, blessed with moderate fall weather, is ideal for outdoor performances.
The city also has plenty of iconic outdoor venues. In a win-win, Ballet Tucson partnered with other nonprofits—the museum, the garden, the zoo and St. Philip's—that likewise are navigating hard pandemic times. The Pop Up shows benefit all of them.
"It has been great to have the time to develop new community partnerships," Cabana says. It's a trend that could continue even when COVID-19 is controlled, whenever that happens.
For now, the Pop Up Performances are a bright spot for dancers and audiences alike.
The numbers of concert-goers is being kept low to allow for social distancing. At last week's concert there were some 30 chairs, widely spread, and about 50 people, some of them standing, other sitting on rocks. The show sold out, and some dance lovers had to be turned away.
Just nine dancers were on the program. The show might have been informal, but the dancing was a delight. Chieko and Precup get credit for the choreography.
Casey Myrick, a company dancer who dazzled in a Christopher Wheeldon piece last winter, played a lively skeleton in one of the Días de los Muertos pieces. He cavorted with three young dancers from the company's school, all of them dressed in colorful Mexican costumes—and masks. The piece, choreographed by Imada, was a nice companion to the giant Calavera Catrina statues nearby. Myrick also did a dashing solo Aztec dance.
A second Day of the Dead dance featured exuberant dancers Jennifer Martin and Laura Schultz in rainbow skirts; a jazz piece provided a solo for Kelsey Minzenmeyer, another standout dancer; the grand finale was a wicked tango duet for Precup and Johnson.
The whole thing, short as it was, was a pleasure both for the people in the seats and the people catapulting through the air.
Myric perfectly summed up the mutual elation.
"I am so happy to be performing in these pop-ups," he said. "Art is so vital to our community and during these times, particularly so."