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The Sounds of the Saguaro 

Outdoor play in Saguaro National Park celebrates our signature cactus through story, dance and music

click to enlarge Dancers Greg Colburn and Kimi Eisele portray desert animals in A Whisper Through the Spines, a play in Saguaro National Park.

Kathleen Dreier

Dancers Greg Colburn and Kimi Eisele portray desert animals in A Whisper Through the Spines, a play in Saguaro National Park.

Kimi Eisele swears that a saguaro speaks. Or at least whispers.

She should know. She's spent much of the last year or two standing with saguaros and listening quietly to the whispers that float through their spines.

"These are the voices of the desert," Eisele says.

In the spring, during an artistic project called Standing with Saguaros, Eisele encouraged Tucsonans to come out to the desert and experience the saguaro the way she had, by standing quietly next to one.

Afterwards, participants wrote about the saguaro's arms reaching toward the sky, about the intricate folds of its skin, about the cactus's resident bugs and its birds. But many excitedly described the whispers they heard wafting from the saguaro.

"I love that so many people have heard this saguaro sound," Eisele says.

It was those talkative saguaros—and their listeners—that brought Eisele to her newest artistic venture. Best known as a dancer and ground-breaking choreographer who has deployed dancers into dry riverbeds and onto mountainsides, Eisele is also a writer and teacher. Now for the first time she is now adding what she calls "theater-theater" to her multidisciplinary portfolio.

This weekend, she premieres A Whisper Through the Spines in Saguaro National Park West. Part play, part dance, part music, part movie, Whisper will be performed briefly inside the Red Hills Visitor Center but mostly among the lush saguaro stands nearby.

"I've been wanting to move into theater, but it's exhilarating and terrifying at the same time," Eisele says with a laugh. With the exception of two dancers—Greg Colburn and Eisele herself —"my cast is all actors with movement experience." Many are actors with Borderlands Theater, which is sponsoring the play.

Colburn and Eisele will represent desert animals dancing among the cacti, and the rest of the 10-person cast, all dressed in spotless white, will play a variety of historic and fictional characters. A playful imaginary figure by the name of Globe Mallow (played by Dallas Thomas) is a quirky park ranger who was brought up by wild animals. The real-life plant scientist Effie Spaulding, a woman who published early research on the saguaro at Tumamoc Hill, also turns up. Portrayed by Sharon O'Brien of Stories That Soar, Effie will roam around outdoors and enlighten the audience on the saguaro's mysteries.

The audience, limited to 100 people, will be divided into three groups; they'll be led to different scenes among the saguaros at different times. On one stop they'll listen to saxophone player Heidi Wilson play a duet with a saguaro. At another they'll learn about the annual harvest of saguaro fruits conducted each year by the Tohono O'odham. Milta Ortiz of Borderlands will portray the harvester, a character inspired by Stella Tucker and her daughter Tanisha, two O'odham women who still pluck the fruits each year on their family's traditional harvest site, now part of Saguaro National Park.

Elsewhere, they'll hear a brief monologue about the controversial "sleeping Mexican" figure, a common, often-racist image of a man slumbering below a saguaro. Delivered by actor José Bellisario, the monologue uncovers the multiple meanings of the iconic image.

The sleeping Mexican monologue was inspired by a "Saguaro Minute" radio interview Eisele did with Dr. Maribel Alvarez, a UA folklorist, anthropologist and director of the Southwest Folklife Alliance.

In fact, much of the script was devised from comments that Eisele gathered from community members during a months-long saguaro project. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service, the project included the Standing with Saguaros outings to the desert, the radio interviews on KXCI, and a Saguaro Ball performed by dancers in formal dress in the park early one August morning.

A Whisper Through the Spines is the grand finale, and Eisele was intent on making the play an expression of the community's own affection for the region's signature cactus. People's comments on the saguaro throughout the project were "very poetic," she says, "and needed storytelling."

She enlisted the help of O'Brien (also a cast member) of Stories That Soar, a theatrical group that takes stories written by children and other non-professionals and makes them come to life on the stage. Collaborating with the performers, she and O'Brien refined the stories and adapted them to make them work in the unusual theatrical setting of Saguaro National Park. In the end, though, Eisele is still the director.

Performed in the light of day, among the saguaros, with the Tucson Mountains on one side and distant Baboquivari Peak on the other, the play, she says, feels like "an intermediary between the desert and the urban world."

Tesoro+Artifact

Back in the city, Artifact Dance Project—fresh from its ambitious dance-music rendering of Animal Farm, the dark George Orwell novel about totalitarianism— goes for a light evening of live music and dance in its downtown warehouse studio.

The Tucson band Tesoro, a frequent Artifact collaborator, revels in flamenco, rumba, cumbia and Latin pop and rock. Artifact provides the dance, a contemporary blend of ballet and modern moves, with the dancers gliding and leaping between the pillars on the studio floor. The audience, seated in chairs along the wall, get an up-close look at the troupe's dancers, whose brightly colored costumes mesh with the Latin theme.

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