The Few, the Proud

The Marines drilled balletic sense into John M. Wilson, who's kicking up one of three ambitious dance programs this weekend.

John M. Wilson maintains that the best choreography training he ever got was in the Marines.

"I learned about choreography from formation flying," says Wilson, who flew helicopters for the Marines for five years, between the Korean and Vietnam wars. "I always flew the 12th helicopter back. I could see 11 helicopters ahead of me. I worked out a lot of choreography that way."

The Marines as Muse? A dancer among the Few and the Proud? It's a riff that could open a silly joke, but the cultural collision of art and armaments is typical of the inspired cross-fertilization of Wilson's career. A UA professor of dance who is retiring at the end of this semester after 40 years of university teaching, he created an eclectic scholarly niche at the cusp of dance and anthropology.

This weekend, at Premium Blend, the annual faculty choreography showcase, he stages his final dance work, "Heritage of Earth," the latest in a long line of dances derived from world dance and ritual.

"This is the swan song," he jokes. "My 96th piece. I didn't make it to 100 (dances) but it's an appropriate ending."

In his younger years, Wilson was both an actor and dancer who hoofed on stage at the tail end of the vaudeville years. "We toured a lot of movie houses in the 1940s," he says, "performing Saturday afternoons and nights in between the movies." After he had a family he moved on to academe, picking up two Ph.D.s, in kinesiology/dance and in comparative literature and theater, and teaching successively at Wisconsin, Utah and Arizona.

Besides teaching studio dance at the UA, he has offered his students a scholarly view of movement, informed by his research into dance traditions around the world. His course "Dance in World Cultures," for instance, is an interdisciplinary class co-sponsored by the dance and anthropology departments. The global perspective informs his choreography as well. The new piece, "Heritage of Earth," is typical Wilson, based as it is "on images of Minoan culture from ancient Crete." A four-part ballet for 16 dancers, it's been percolating ever since Wilson and his wife took a trip to Crete several years ago.

"I do dance anthropology and I was so struck by this, the Muse has visited. She doesn't always .... It's about the sacred bull-vaulting ceremony. The (Minoans') language has never been translated and all we have are the images from the frescoes and so on. They're so beautiful."

The student dancers of the UA Dance Ensemble will wear costumes based on pictures of snake goddesses and other mythological characters in the Minoan art of 1500 to 1200 B.C. Carrol McLaughlin, a UA music professor, has composed a "wonderful score," which she'll perform on stage with her musical group HarpFusion, a combo of 12 harps and percussion.

The work unfolds from part one, "The Temple of Knossos," to "The Entrance of the Bull Vaulters" and "Dance of the Snake Priestesses." It concludes ambiguously with "The Sacrifice and Victory."

"It ends with a woman in mid-vault," he says, a feat accomplished by blacking out the lights. "We don't know whether it's sacrifice or victory. I think it's a good note to go out on."

Other faculty works on the Premium Blend program will be "Twisted Tango" by Amy Ernst, a comical take on the Argentine dance; "Borrowed Baroque," a modern piece by Sam Watson; and the jazzy "ModernCool" by Susan Quinn. Nina Janik composed the contemporary ballet "Red Spectrum," with music by Kip Haaheim, a guest professor of music, while Melissa Lowe and Jory Hancock reprise their Neoclassical ballet from 1996, "English Suite." Guest artist James Clouser, who will step into Wilson's teaching slot next fall, contributes "April Preludes, April Fugues."

Wilson says he's pleased to leave the dance department in the capable hands of its nine full-time faculty, including division head Hancock, whom he praises for being "amazing in pulling resources together for 10 years." When Wilson arrived at the UA 25 years ago, there were just four dance professors, he says; the discipline was "just a little scrap unit of PE, with no budget, scratching around. We almost got shut down four times."

Since those trying years, the department has gotten nationally accredited, started a successful graduate program and risen dramatically in the ranks of university dance departments, says Wilson, who put in nine years as department head. A new dance performance complex is in the works. Now age 65, he's looking forward to retirement, with plans to write a book on world dance, plant a butterfly garden in his back yard and visit his grandchildren.

"I have loved teaching," he says. "It's been wonderful."

A HIGH SCHOOL DANCE CONCERT this weekend coincidentally bears witness to Wilson's wide influence as a dance teacher. The Primaveras, the advanced modern dance team of University/Rincon High School, stages its annual Senior Solo Concert Friday evening. The troupe has long been under the direction of Peggy Paver, who studied for her master's under Wilson at the UA.

Primarily a modern dance troupe, the Primaveras will also dip into ballet and musical theater in the concert. The show starts at 7 p.m. Friday, April 6, at the UHS/Rincon High School auditorium, 422 N. Arcadia Ave., near Swan and Fifth. For more information call 318-2200.

A FANCIFUL FRENCH BALLET more than 80 years old will be the highlight of this weekend's third dance concert choice. Tucson Regional Ballet, a local company of student dancers, re-stages the 1919 Leonid Massine ballet La Boutique Fantasque. A Russian who choreographed for Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes, Massine is perhaps best known to generations of little girls for his part as the ballet master in the beloved movie The Red Shoes.

"La Boutique Fantasque is the story of a magic doll shop," says company co-artistic director Linda Walker. "It's a one-act ballet that takes place in France. It's very animated and full of fun. There's a rather eccentric doll shop keeper, and various customers come in--a Russian family, an American family, two English ladies."

Naturally, this being a fantastical shop, the dolls come to life, rising up in rebellion when two of their number are to be purchased and carried off. The dolls also allow for colorful genre costumes--and dancing--including French can-can, Italian tarantella, Russian cossacks, a pack of playing cards and 14 ballerina dolls.

The music, by Rossini, "is "very beautiful," says Walker, who did most of the choreography, with the exception of the tarantella, choreographed by co-artistic director Carolyn Haatainan-Wallace.

The concert opens with a series of short original pieces. Haatainan-Wallace debuts "Cloud Dwellers," set on the senior company. Jon Cristofori, director of Ballet Yuma and a former Joffrey dancer, will show his contemporary abstract work, "Still Flourishing." Walker contributes "Having Fun" for the junior apprentices, and Sarah Gelband, a high school junior who is one of the company's leading dancers, premieres two pieces of choreography, both contemporary ballets.

The UA Dance Division stages Premium Blend, its annual faculty concert, at 8 p.m. Friday, April 6, and at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at Crowder Hall in the UA fine arts complex near Park and Speedway. Tickets are $10 general, $8 for students and seniors. For more information call 621-1162.

Tucson Regional Ballet presents La Boutique Fantasque and other dances at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, April 7, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 8, at the TCC Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, students and children. They're available at TicketMaster and all TCC outlets or by calling 321-1000.

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