Spectrum of Emotion

Ballet Tucson opens the new season with a program featuring 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame'

Deanna Doncsecz is in a gypsy skirt, flirtatiously pirouetting around Dan Escudero in a Ballet Tucson studio.

She's rehearing her Esmeralda, doomed heroine of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and he's practicing his Phoebus, the soldier who trifles with her. The new work's choreographer, Lawrence Pech, sweaty himself from the workout he's just gotten in company class, watches the pair with a rapturous smile. But he wants more.

"I need some of my gargoyles here," he calls out, summoning his extras. "Can I see my Fleur de Lis-ers?" Then, admonishing one of the new Ballet Tucson apprentices, he notes, "You need to be a little sharper at the end."

Current choreographer for the San Francisco Opera, and former dancer with San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, Pech is not the only one keeping a close eye on the dancers rehearsing for Ballet Tucson's season opener. He's just one-third of the local company's dream team of ballet pros, old hands who have dozens of years at ABT among them.

Ballerina Amanda McKerrow, who retired from ABT after 23 years just last year in a shower of flowers thrown onto the Lincoln Center stage, sits on a chair in the Tucson studio, making written notes on every step the dancers take. Her husband, John Gardner, a veteran of both ABT and Mikhail Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project, is also standing by, offering suggestions.

"This is such a treat for us," Gardner says during a break. After dancing with some of the great choreographers of the 20th century--including George Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Agnes DeMille and Jerome Robbins--the trio of ex-ABTers say they're happy to be working with the Tucson troupe and its artistic director, Mary-Beth Cabana.

"I just love Mary-Beth to death," Gardner says. "We share a sensibility."

Gardner and McKerrow will work with the dancers all year as ballet masters and coaches, and this Saturday night, at the season-opening gala, they'll even dance. They'll perform a 1960 Balanchine pas de deux, "The Man I Love," an extract from the longer work "Who Cares?"

"It's a little love duet danced to Gershwin," Gardner says. "It has a jazzy flavor."

Also on the weekend's program is a big, showy Spanish-style ballet, Paquita, put together by Ballet Tucson assistant artistic director Chieko Imada, along with Cabana, McKerrow and Gardner. Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, Paquita is an "upbeat, classical ballet, danced in tutus," Cabana says.

The 15 women in the cast wear red and black tutus, and the six men will sport black bolero jackets. The work showcases each of the company dancers, Cabana says, but Jenna Johnson has the starring role. "She's our ballerina."

But the main attraction of the weekend is the premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a story ballet that is Pech's biggest choreography project to date. (The Balanchine pas de deux will be seen only Saturday night, while Hunchback and Paquita will be danced Saturday night as well as at the two Sunday matinees.)

"The concert program is very balanced," Pech says. "This is a theater piece, and Paquita is full-out dance. I told the dancers, 'For me, you are actors. The audience will see you dance in the second half.'"

Pech has often worked with Ballet Tucson, dancing the Prince in Cinderella and composing several short pieces for the annual Dance and Dessert concerts. Earlier this year, Cabana hired him to choreograph a major work for the annual Halloween concert.

"They'd done Dracula the last two years," he explains. "Mary-Beth wanted a new Halloween ballet. I suggested Frankenstein, but Mary-Beth said, 'What about Hunchback?'"

Pech plunged into Victor Hugo's novel, a "500-plus page tome." Published in 1831, the panoramic novel of medieval Paris covers the "entire spectrum of human emotion," he says, "love, jealousy, corruption, what's beautiful, what's ugly in human nature."

The story, often translated to the screen, is a complicated tale about the beautiful young gypsy woman, Esmeralda, and the three men who triangulate around her. One is a corrupt priest, Frollo; the second is the soldier, Phoebus; and the third Quasimodo, the titular hunchback who's been deafened by the bells in the cathedral of Notre Dame. Around these four swirls a human tide of urban characters--beggars, thieves, fools, soldiers, gypsies and judges. Of necessity, Pech had to compress the work.

"I boiled it down into nine scenes. I took out the subplots and dealt with the human relationships. It's now 45 minutes and 26 seconds," he says with a smile. "I consider that a big victory." A voiceover narration, which Pech wrote, will help sort out the plot.

Pech, now in his 10th season as choreographer at San Francisco Opera, recently got a composition degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For Hunchback, he chose some suitably complex music from his favorite composer, Samuel Barber.

He's composed at least 30 ballets in his long career, and most of them have been abstract--he calls them "painting music"--but he's enjoyed the switch to narrative. "I like going deep, telling a story." And he danced with the best, he adds, learning from the likes of Tudor and Balanchine and Baryshnikov to put meaning into every gesture.

"I've emphasized acting with the dancers, and they're fantastic." But that doesn't preclude phrases of purely visual splendor. In one scene, after Esmeralda's trial on charges of attempted murder, a "row of altar boys and priests passes through the line of dancers; they're like a tsunami, getting swept away."

The big new ballet has a cast of 64: 24 of them are adults, including the professional members of the troupe, apprentices and trainees, and 40 are children from the Ballet Arts studio. Joseph McGrath, who also designed the sets, portrays Quasimodo. Daniel Precup, so convincing as Dracula in the previous Halloween productions, is the evil Frollo. Johnson dances the Virgin Mary, a statue in the cathedral who comes to life.

Four young girls dressed in shimmering silver portray Quasimodo's beloved bells, and hordes of kids swathed in autumnal golds play the mobs.

McGrath's sets conjure up the teeming medieval city, Pech says. A Gothic arch and two-story bell tower evoke the cathedral of Notre Dame, and a platform serves as the pillory where Quasimodo is beaten and the gallows where Esmeralda is to be hanged.

A week before opening, Pech is happy with he's wrought.

"Mary-Beth asked me to do this because I so appreciate what she has here," he says. "She gave me all the time I need and complete creative control. And she has great dancers."

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