"We both think that one of the most important values in modern dance is 'a human story told well.' For many years in modern dance, this was not the case," says Thom Lewis.
Lewis and his partner, Lee Anne Hartley, long ago became fed up with the empty, meaningless abstraction of some modern-dance practitioners who shall, in this article, remain nameless.
"But in the greats, (the element of story) was always there. Even when Martha Graham's works were abstract, they were about human stories," Lewis says. "Jose Limón's work did the same thing. They were about people--their lives and ideas--about human beings."
The dance avant-garde has become increasingly inaccessible to audiences, the creators of Funhouse believe. Making dances that tell stories and actually appeal to people is one of Funhouse's primary drives, Hartley says.
"I think we have that in our work. I remember one audience member coming out of one of our concerts saying, 'I loved it, and I understood it, too.'"
Audiences will have a chance to understand more about Funhouse Movement Theater this weekend, when the group performs its latest concert, titled The Southern Cross, Friday and Saturday nights in the TCC's Leo Rich Theater.
For more than 20 years, Lewis has been a mainstay in Tucson modern-dance circles, having performed with both Orts Theatre of Dance and Tenth Street Danceworks, and having earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Arizona's well-regarded dance program.
Hartley and Lewis met in the mid-1970s when both were undergraduates at the UA. Hartley left Tucson soon after to dance and choreograph in Seattle, and returned to the Old Pueblo in the late 1990s eager to start up her own company. Her first dance gig in Tucson was working with Lewis on his 1997 MFA thesis concert. They discovered they shared a simpatico aesthetic.
That collaboration led to the pair forming Funhouse, which presented its debut concert in 2000 and has followed with a new show each March since.
Dances both new and old make up the program for this weekend's concert.
Hartley's latest work is "Pablo," an ambitious, five-part piece for 10 dancers that is inspired by the writings of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Translated lines from his poems set the tone for each section: "Many hands make the world," "Bring light to the shadowed heart," "You set fire to life," "When all was moon" and "One more knot to the thread of life."
Like other pieces on the bill, "Pablo" incorporates young dancers who have been working with Funhouse for three years and have become surprisingly seasoned, Hartley says.
"They are in the 7th through the 10th grades. They have been with us for three years now, and many of them play more prominent roles in the performance. Since they began, one has moved up to an adult role. They have real talent. They are not just there for background filler."
Lewis will perform a new solo for himself, titled "Speaking in Tongues," which he describes as being about traditional religion.
"I've always been fascinated with those tent revivals," Lewis says. "I know that most people think it is all a put-on. But there are also people who attend those things who are genuinely filled with the spirit."
"Speaking in Tongues" refers to the practice in charismatic and Pentecostal churches through which Christian mystics directly communicate with God in heretofore-unknown languages.
Lewis professed to not knowing choreographer Paul Taylor's 1988 group-work of the same name. He's more familiar with the classic Talking Heads album that shares the title. "Another reference point is the saying 'God moves in mysterious ways,' and the movement in this piece is kind of mysterious."
Lewis also will see two of his older works re-staged: "Suite: Down Under," a sextet that he created as a result of Tenth Street's touring in the Pacific Rim in 1991 during the first Gulf War; and his 1989 duet "But Not About You," which will be performed by teenage dancers Linda Gosner and Zac Womack.
Hartley is dusting off her group work "Hokusai Seascape," a water-inspired piece that was in the first Funhouse concert. The title makes reference to the works of the 19th-century Japanese painter Hokusai Katsushika, and the work has been described as haiku poems come to life.
Because Funhouse doesn't have its own roster of dancers, Lewis and Hartley are free to draw from the diverse variety of performers who work with Tucson's three other prominent modern dance companies--Orts, New ARTiculations and Zuzi! Move It Dance Company. And because of newfound cooperation among those groups and Funhouse, there are no ill feelings about poaching, Hartley says.
"I'd say right now that there's a kind of a renaissance of cooperation with Tucson's dance community," she says. "The four modern dance companies that are here are communicating better and understanding each other better than ever."
Those four companies together have received a capacity building grant from the Arizona Community Foundation for working collectively to increase public relations and marketing efforts. The grant includes the opportunity to work with a marketing consultant, the publication of a joint season brochure and $1,800-$2,000 for each group to use for individual marketing.
"This will help us plan and apply strategies to build the audience beyond more than the usual 200 to 240 people who attend modern-dance concerts," Hartley adds.