Story Book

Two companies dance around age-old tales and familiar stories.

Dance lovers this weekend can pick and choose between concerts representing opposite poles in contemporary dance.

Ballet Tucson, the professional company that's the town's epitome of classical ballet, premieres a brand-new Hansel and Gretel in its annual spring concert and roams a bit over dance history, offering up Act II of the ballet favorite Swan Lake and the less-familiar Graduation Ball. Zuzi Move It Dance Company, a 3-year-old modern troupe, offers up an evening-long performance piece that blends song, dance and stories.

The Zuzi piece, Cantadoras, An Evening of Dance and Song, was a year in the making. Nancy Mellan, co-founder of the company, says the collaboration has been an emotional challenge for the dancers, because it draws on their own lives.

"In rehearsal Nanette Robinson asked us to spend time writing about meaningful women in our lives," remembers Mellan, who co-founded the troupe with Robinson. "It's how the project began. It dug up a lot for all of us. It's storytelling as a healing art."

The resulting piece opens this weekend in a series of four concerts. Joined by a quartet of four older women from the community and a quintet of young girls ages 10 to 14, the Zuzi dancers perform the tales as a single, long modern dance piece. Mellan calls it a "beautiful tapestry of the collected stories of Tucson community women, youth and elders."

Vocalist Cantrell Maryott, whose ethereal voice was last heard in March at the edgy Bad Girls Storytelling Brigade shows, provides live music. The stories that the women wrote down at the start of the project became a text for Maryott's songs and chants. Maryott accompanies herself on drum and the "singing bowl," a round brass bowl that's played with a wooden dowel; it creates what Mellan calls a "haunting" sound.

The women and girls of Zuzi's Women's Initiative for Youth and Elders join the seven dancers in the performance. A group that's also been meeting together for a year, they danced at Zuzi's Winter Solstice concert in December. Eager to do more dance composition, the Initiative members told their own stories, and "created separate groups and dances" for Cantadoras, Mellan says. "In other sections they're integrated into the company."

Robinson gets credit as choreographer for the piece, though she collaborated with the dancers throughout. The show opens with a piece choreographed by Zuzi dancer Kristen Widmer; it includes an improvisation by Wendy Joy, Robinson and Mellan. Other company members include Yumi Shirai and Hilary Mackler, and guest artist Beth Braun.

Mellan says the Cantadoras project was inspired by Jungian therapist Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run with the Wolves. Estes favors incorporating folkloric tales into storytelling, Mellan says, with the idea of moving toward "more soulful" ways of living. And the dance helped the participants deal with real-life sorrows, Mellan says. One woman's mother died while the Cantadoras collaboration was under way; another was mourning the loss of a daughter.

The project has been "extremely potent," says Mellan. "Storytelling is hauling up, dredging up. What the women have to say is very meaningful. It's been very healing."

WHEN MARY BETH CABANA, artistic director of Ballet Tucson, hit upon the idea of doing a new Hansel and Gretel, she found a multitude of sources.

"The Grimms' fairy tale is basically about the mean stepmother, who persuades the father to abandon the children," she says. "The witch gets hold of them, and ultimately the stepmother dies and the father comes and gets them.

"In the (Engelbert Humperdinck) opera, the parents are hardworking, village poor people, making brooms, knitting socks. They send the kids out into the woods to pick berries and they get lost."

So in the opera, it's simply bad luck, and not parental negligence, that thrusts Hansel and Gretel into the clutches of the evil witch. Cabana settled on the 1893 opera version, following the libretto written by Humperdinck's sister Adelheid Wette, not only because it's more benign than the Grimms' but because it has more visual delights. For instance, the operatic witch has baked dozens of children into a gingerbread cookie fence and meets an interesting surprise fate in her famous oven. And then the opera provides far more parts, no small consideration when a ballet company is casting 85 or 90 kids in a show, as this one does.

But Cabana decided against using Humperdinck's music, turning instead to Russian composer Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936).

"I used an obscure Glazunov score, the Scènes de Ballet, and the Finished Sketches," she says. "That has a solemn march, which is good in the witch scenes."

While Hansel and Gretel is an original piece of Cabana choreography, the concert's next piece is the ballet standard Act II of Swan Lake, dating from 1895. Its white swan costumes, sumptuous Tchaikovsky music and intricate dances have long made it an audience favorite. Chieko Imada, a Tucson dancer who's assistant director and teacher at Ballet Arts, re-staged it after the Russian choreographer Petipa, Cabana says. Swan Lake shows off the classical technique of 25 of the studio's advanced and professional dancers.

The final work on the program, Graduation Ball, is a less-familiar piece gleaned from dance history. Choreographed in 1940 by David Lichine of Ballets Russes, "it's a comedy ballet set in the mid-1880s at a private girls' finishing school," Cabana says. "It's a graduation dance, and there's all sorts of comedic flirtations. It has classical ballet elements and also dances like the mazurka. It's fun and lively."

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