Sleek and Sculptural

Ballet Tucson kicks off season No. 20 in a big way

Ballerina Amanda McKerrow gave her farewell performance at American Ballet Theatre in July, dancing Giselle to Ethan Stiefel's Albrecht.

One critic called McKerrow's performance "miraculous," another "heart-rending." When it ended, the audience at New York's Lincoln Center leapt to its feet and showered the stage with flowers, saluting the ballerina after a 23-year career at ABT.

But McKerrow has hardly hung up her pointe shoes. This Friday night, she'll dance at the UA's Stevie Eller Theatre, guest-starring in Ballet Tucson's 20th anniversary gala.

"Amanda will dance with her regular partner, John Gardner," Ballet Tucson artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana said last week. "They'll be our special guest stars of the evening."

By coincidence, at last year's Ballet Tucson season opener, the visiting husband-and-wife pair danced Giselle Act II, with Gardner taking the role of the faithful hunter Hilarion. This time, they'll perform Kenneth MacMillan's Concerto pas de deux, set to Shostakovich's Second Piano Concerto.

"It's a really beautiful piece, and I don't think it's ever been done in Tucson," Cabana said.

Also on Friday's program are two narrative ballets, Dracula, a Ballet Tucson original that premiered last Halloween, and Graduation Ball, a restaging of a Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo work from 1940. Ballet Tucson's 10 professional dancers, along with apprentices and advanced students, will handle all the dancing in Dracula and Graduation Ball, which will be reprised at two concerts on Sunday afternoon.

But Concerto will be danced only once. The out-of-town stars will perform only at Friday night's fundraising gala, which includes a pre-concert reception and silent auction, and a post-concert dessert with the dancers.

The pas de deux, choreographed by British choreographer MacMillan in 1966, is far more modern than last year's romantic Giselle. Instead of 19th-century gauze and ruffles, the dancers wear sleek costumes in simple black and white.

"MacMillan is known for his inventive partnering," Cabana said, and the movement tends toward the "sculptural."

McKerrow and Gardner, himself a veteran of ABT and the White Oak Project, have been associated with Ballet Tucson for six or seven years. They recently began working with Ballet Pacifica, a company in Irvine, Calif., now under the direction of Stiefel, the ABT star who's perhaps the best male dancer today. Gardner is associate artistic director, McKerrow ballet mistress and a school administrator. They'll continue to make guest appearances around the country, and at Ballet Tucson, Cabana said, occasionally teaching at its Ballet Arts studio and rehearsing its dancers.

"They've really developed quite a following in Tucson," Cabana said. "They like coming here."

Graduation Ball, a one-act ballet choreographed by David Lichine, is a comical story about a dance at a girls' finishing school. A platoon of young cadets, freshly graduated from a military academy, are imported to partner the girls. Ballet Tucson deploys some 22 dancers, who pirouette through flirtatious romps to the music of Johann Strauss, against a backdrop picturing a ballroom in old Vienna.

"It's a comedy, a character ballet," Cabana said, with "divertissements in the middle of the Grand Ball, and a pas de deux that's a romantic interlude."

With a restaging by Ballet Tucson's Chieko Imada and Susan Causbie-Cowfill, the troupe last performed it five years ago, Cabana said.

Joseph McGrath, the company's perennial Drosselmeyer, portrays the General, and Deanna Doncsecz dances the Headmistress. Meredith Mulaney plays the Hostess, while Selena Ginn and Megan Terry alternate the part of the Pigtail Girl.

Jody Jaglowski, a new Ballet Tucson dancer this season, dances the pas de deux with the company's Daniel Precup. Jaglowski, previously a principal dancer with Cleveland Ballet, Cabana's old dancing grounds, is a "fabulous dancer," Cabana said. "We're happy to have her here."

Her partner, Precup, the tall Transylvanian who made his Tucson debut as Dracula last year, also reprises the role of the monstrous count. For the 50-minute story ballet, based on Bram Stoker's novel, he partners with his real-life wife, Jenna Johnson, who plays his hapless love interest, Mina. The two former dancers with the Oakland Ballet married last summer.

Melanie Hawkes plays Lucy, and new company member Josh Christopher, a former soloist with the Kansas City Ballet, dances the part of the Englishman Jonathan, who wants only to make a real estate deal. Children play the gypsies who try to warn Jonathan away from Dracula's Transylvanian lair, helping round out the cast to 30. The troupers careen through multiple sets, including the castle, a ruined abbey and a beach. A coffin is among the props, natch, and a Vampire's Ball is one of the hair-raising scenes.

Mark Schneider, the troupe's resident choreographer, composed the piece last year, but it's been reworked a tad. Mia Hansen and Cabana both contributed some new scenes.

"We've changed it a little, tightening up some scenes and expanding others," Cabana said. "For instance, before, we had two people playing Dracula: One was the monster; one was the count. We've changed that, and now Daniel plays all the Dracula parts."

In its 19th season last year, the company turned pro, with Cabana hiring 11 dancers and putting them on 25-week contracts. She's tweaked the new troupe a bit this season, letting four dancers go and hiring three more. Besides Jaglowski and Christopher, the newcomers include Mark Krieger, who danced in several performances last year.

"He's young, only 19 or 20, and has a lot of potential," Cabana said. "I can't say how excited I am about this group of dancers. They're hardworking and fun. It's a small company, and we have to meld together in a certain way. I think I got the balance of personalities right this time. I'm excited about this year."

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