The Poet's Dream

Tucson Regional Ballet celebrates spring with a three-part concert

Tucson Regional Ballet's dancers are tackling the important early Russian ballet Les Sylphides, and they've learned it from a dancer who traces her lineage to its legendary choreographer, Michel Fokine.

"We've got an expert to help us!" company co-artistic director Linda Walker exclaimed last week. "We have a guest artist who learned it from the dancers who learned it from the choreographer."

Alaine Haubert, formerly a principal with American Ballet Theater and the Joffrey, has flown to Tucson twice to set it on the advanced young dancers in the 23-year-old Tucson company. In her dancing days, Haubert learned the plotless ballet at the feet of the ABT dancers who had learned it from Fokine himself, back in 1940 in New York.

"Alaine gathered our kids and talked to them about the respect they needed to show the choreographer and the way it should be performed," Walker said. "This is a first for us, and our dancers are capturing the style."

Performed to Chopin piano pieces played live by Alexander Tentser, Les Sylphides is the highlight of Tucson Regional Ballet's annual spring concert this weekend. The show will also premiere several ballet works by Walker and by her co-artistic director, Gary McKenzie, as well as two dances by young "emerging choreographers" in the company. Best known for its annual Southwest Nutcracker, Tucson Regional has primarily teen dancers, but they're well-trained, with most of them studying in Walker's Academy of Ballet.

Fokine premiered the ballet back in 1907 at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, calling it Chopiniana and casting Anna Pavlova as the female lead. He revised it the following year, pairing Vaslav Nijinsky with Pavlova. The final tweak and a name change came the next year, 1909, when Les Sylphides debuted in Paris. Over the years, after leaving Russia, Fokine set it on numerous companies, including New York's ABT, where he was chief choreographer in the early '40s.

In the 30-minute piece, a young poet wanders into a forest and dances with the woodland sylphs of his imagination. But the ballet broke from romantic tradition by stripping away a strong narrative.

"It's the poet's dream," Walker explained. "There's no real story."

The ambitious Tucson staging deploys some 20 dancers, including four soloists and 16 members of the corps. The young women are all dressed in long, white romantic gowns, and the lone male is attired in a white flowing poet's shirt and tights, and a black velvet vest.

Sixteen-year-old Samuel Greenberg takes the part of the poet.

"He's so classical; he's perfect in the part," Walker said.

Brittany DeGrofft and Alexis Mondragon alternate in the pas de deux. Cassie Salmen and Krista Zegura take turns on a solo, and Hallie Edmonds and Laura Meckstroth alternate the third featured female role.

"There are seven movements," Walker said. "The corps parts are hard, too. It's good training for our dancers."

Pianist Tentser was born in Ukraine and trained in Moscow, immigrating to the United States in 1990. He picked up a doctorate in music at the UA, and locally has played with the Tucson Symphony, Southern Arizona Symphony, Catalina Chamber Orchestra and Day Star Chamber Players.

"He plays with so much feeling," Walker said. "And he's very aware of the dance tempos."

Les Sylphides closes the three-part concert. The show opens with "Metamorphosis," a new contemporary ballet by McKenzie that showcases 13 of the troupe's most advanced dancers, the high schoolers in its senior company. Set to music by Philip Glass, the fast-paced work is a "huffer-puffer," Walker said. "It's hard."

Walker follows up with her "Sweet Suite," a more classical ballet for the young apprentices in the junior company. "The audience enjoys seeing the senior company and then seeing who's coming up."

"Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," a McKenzie ballet set to the familiar Mozart music, is "classical, but a very bright, cheery ballet," according to Walker. A work for nine, it features members of the junior company and the senior apprentices.

The second act of the show highlights new work by two young dancers who have featured roles in Les Sylphides. Salmen, who's just been accepted into the competitive UA dance program, premieres "Identity Clash," a dance for nine that's a "contemporary ballet on pointe with jazz influences."

Mondragon, a high school junior, presents "Ombra," a more classical ballet quartet.

"Alexis has studied at ABT and the Miami City Ballet," Walker said. "She's Balanchine-oriented and that comes out in her dance."

The troupe's youngest dancers get a chance to strut their stuff in "Stir Fry," a humorous Walker piece that encases fifth, sixth and seventh graders in vegetable suits.

"They're carrots and peas," Walker said. "And the onions make everybody cry. This is the second time we're performing it; it's so popular. The audience loves it."

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