Sweet Choreography

Ballet and modern dance step out on the UA campus during two different weekend shows

This weekend, Antony Tudor, the great ballet choreographer, goes toe to toe against Mark Morris, the great modern choreographer, at opposite ends of the UA campus.

Morris, still very much alive, brings his acclaimed 18-member Mark Morris Dance Group to UA Centennial Hall on Friday night, March 12. A program of three long modern pieces, all danced to classical music—by Bartók, Beethoven and Schuman—will be played live by Morris' five company musicians.

Tudor has been dead since 1987, but Ballet Tucson revives his 1937 "Dark Elegies" in its 13th Annual Dance and Dessert concert. The local pro ballet troupe has won deserved praise in recent years for re-stagings of Tudor's masterworks, an undertaking made possible by company artistic associates Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner. The two former American Ballet Theatre dancers worked closely with Tudor for years.

Their reconstruction of "Dark Elegies" will be just one of eight dances on the program, which offers up extravagant pastries post-concert, after the pas de deux are done.

The good news is local dance lovers who plan their schedules carefully can see both concerts, book-ending their weekends with sterling modern and sterling ballet. Both troupes are performing Friday night, but Ballet Tucson is dancing three more shows over the weekend, one on Saturday night and two on Sunday, at the UA's Steve Eller Dance Theatre.

Mark Morris, now 53 and a certified MacArthur genius, was long known as the bad boy of modern dance. He founded his highly regarded dance troupe at the tender age of 24, and draws on multiple movement forms, from neoclassic Balanchine to folk. As Latin is to Western languages, he once wrote, ballet is to dance, the progenitor of all other dance forms.

Morris is extraordinarily inventive, and he recently explained his working method to The New York Times.

"No dance has ever turned out the way I thought it would, because I trust enough that I can start something with some ideas, and then it takes itself somewhere," he said. "But really I'm very prepared, and I'm very spontaneous at the same time."

The New York Times called him the "most successful and influential choreographer alive, and indisputably the most musical."

Morris is so exquisitely attuned to music that he nearly always insists on live music; the music at Centennial Hall will be provided by two violins, a viola, a cello and a piano. He's a musician himself, he once told me before a Tucson engagement years ago; he just happens not to be an "instrumentalist." Instead, he moves his superb dancers through space, like musical notes made flesh.

But Morris neglects none of the senses. He is also known for his painterly palette, for beautifully colored costumes and radiant stage lighting.

Friday's program begins with "All Fours," a 2003 dance for 12 set to Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4. Dressed alternately in all black and all white, the work's 12 dancers perform for 24 minutes.

Beethoven's Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No.1, is the music for "Visitation," a work that debuted just last summer. The 10 men and women in the piece are dressed in Elizabeth Kurtzman-designed loose pants and tops, in muted summer shades of green and brown.

Fourteen dancers come together for "V," set to Robert Schumann's Quintet in E flat major for piano and strings, Op. 44. The work debuted in London in 2001. Designer Martin Pakledinaz, also responsible for the costumes in "All Fours," has the dancers in flowing garments, of pale blue or pungent turquoise.

Over at Stevie Eller, Tudor's "Dark Elegies" deals with dark emotions, reflecting a world on the precipice of war. Like Morris' dances, this one is set to classical music, Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), with lyrics by Friedrich Rückert.

The "ballet requiem" conjures up a community that has lost its children, and it careens from anguish to anger to acceptance. A group work for men and women, it has the women dancing on pointe, though some of its movements approach modern dance. Made two years before Tudor moved to the United States and joined ABT, "Dark Elegies" is said to have been his favorite ballet. Some critics consider it his best work.

The other seven pieces, by six choreographers, lighten the mood. "Joplin" is Mark Schneider's cheerful tribute to Charleston; the full company comes out to high-step the popular 1920s dance. UA professor Sam Watson, known for quirky comic contemporary works, offers up "Sound Effects," which the Ballet Tucson dancers tackle for the first time.

"Le Corsaire Pas de Deux" is excerpted from Petipa's 1899 reworking of a French ballet of 1856. The Russian Petipa made this duet so demanding and breathtaking that more than 100 years later, it's one of the most performed, and popular, pieces in all ballet.

Assistant artistic director Chieko Imada reprises her "Hibiki," a contemporary work inspired by her native Japan, set to Japanese kodo drumming. And she is premiering "Pasión Argentina," a tango duet for company stars Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup.

Artistic director Mary Beth Cabana also goes Latin in her "Ritmos de la Noche (Rhythms of the Night)," a blend of flamenco and Spanish ballet. Former managing director Jeffrey Graham Hughes returns with a premiere, "Beethovennachtisch." Described as a "light, buoyant dance," it's designed to show off the classical chops of the Ballet Tucson dancers.

And as its title suggests, it's got something in common with Mark Morris' work: a score by the great Ludwig von.

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