Transitions and Migrations

O-T-O Dance celebrates its 25th anniversary with its first concert in two years

Annie Bunker has been back in Arizona from Hawaii for weeks now, celebrating.

First, there was the wedding of her older son, Cooper. Then came the high school graduation of her younger son, Wrenn. And this weekend is a concert honoring the 25th anniversary of Orts Theatre of Dance, the modern-dance company she co-founded way back in 1985.

"We're the first modern troupe in Tucson to survive 25 years," Bunker exulted over a smoothie last week at Bentley's House of Coffee and Tea. "We needed to do something to celebrate."

The party rolls out Friday and Saturday night at Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, when the company—renamed O-T-O Dance—joins a squad of guest musicians and a performance artist or two to present Up Out Forever Dancing: 25 Years and Still Flying! It will be the company's first concert in Tucson in two years.

O-T-O appearances in the Old Pueblo diminished in the last several years, after Bunker moved to Hawaii, where she teaches dance in a joint arrangement with the University of Hawaii and Hawaii Community College.

Without a full-time presence in Tucson anymore, Bunker enlisted a crew of O-T-O dancers old and new for the concert. They'll do the company's signature aerial work on trapezes and modern dance on the floor.

"It's not a typical O-T-O dance concert," Bunker said. "It will be different generations and a sampling of different things."

The show will offer up plenty of live music, from Odaiko Sonora, the local drumming group, and William Eaton, who plays lyre, harp and guitar. Eaton's daughter, the young musician Taylor Eaton, will perform for a half-hour before the dancing begins.

At least six choreographers will present their work, including Bunker herself. She'll give a Tucson debut to a couple of new dances that got their start in the Aloha State, and she'll reprise at least one old favorite, the Scottish-themed "Speaking Places," from 1999. Last performed in 2005, it's set to a video backdrop of castles and Scottish moors by Chuck Koesters, Bunker's husband and the company's executive director. The dance includes recorded poetry by Richard Tavenner, a poet-electrician and O-T-O board member for many years.

"It's one of our personal favorites," Bunker said.

Bunker dances it with Stacey Mitchell (formerly Haines) and Nicole Levesque (formerly Stansbury), both former O-T-O dancers. Mitchell now lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she dances with TUPACO Dance. Levesque fell in love with drumming when O-T-O collaborated with Odaiko Sonora, and traded in the trapeze for taiko drums.

In fact, dancing for O-T-O has become a rite of passage for local dancers over the years, and many of the concert's guests artists are O-T-O vets. Beth Braun, for instance, will perform her "Sisters of Grace" with seven other dancers from ZUZI, where Braun is now associate artistic director. Nicole Buffan Sanchez, who also danced for O-T-O, is among the ZUZI dancers. Celebrating sisterhood, the modern work is set to music by Brian Resnik.

Matt Henley, a UA Dance alumnus who graced O-T-O and other local troupes as an undergrad, went on to dance with Randy James and Sean Curran in New York. Freshly graduated from the MFA program at University of Washington, he returns to town to dance the flirtatious duet "Play" with Kailey Johnson, another O-T-O veteran. Johnson danced in New York and California for some years, and is now a member of A Ludwig Dance Theatre in Tempe.

Lee Anne Hartley of FUNHOUSE, who also danced for O-T-O, is not in the show, but she introduced Bunker to a couple of her young dancers, sisters Tavia and Leisel Womack. The two will dance with O-T-O for the first time.

Actor Paul Fisher reprises a performance/dance piece, "The Nine Sins," a collaboration with Bunker, Koesters and painter Bradley W. Pattison. The work was memorably performed in the old Ortspace, with the audience walking around to see different sin dances in different rooms. The reprise, Bunker said, will strip the sins down to three: gluttony, languid indifference and pride. Fisher, Bunker and Bunker's son, Wrenn Bunker Koesters, perform to a video soundtrack.

Current members get a shot at choreography, too. Sukie Keita stages "Shaken Ultima-tums," a contemporary African-inspired work. Just hired to run a new dance program at Grand Canyon University, Keita dances the piece herself, along with Lisa-Marie McFarlane, Cavetta Green and Jennifer Eldred.

Member Aja Knaub created "Interweavings," an aerial dance on hoops. Bunker taught Knaub to dance on trapeze, she said, and now the student is teaching the teacher the hoops.

Bunker's new works include the large group piece "Cadence." The cast of 15 is dressed in costumes divided down the middle, with one side black, the other white.

"It's upbeat. It plays with speeds and varying tempos and directional changes, flipping from black and white," Bunker said. "It's the idea of a pinwheel spinning, creating color out of speed and time."

Her solo "Exhale" is about time passing and age.

"As you get older, time passes and accelerates. At midlife, there's a desire to slow things down again. We can't go back to the past. It's about letting go."

After spending the last few years migrating back and forth across the vast Pacific from Hawaii to Arizona, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that another of her new works is called "Migrations."

Inspired partly by a long-ago Orts piece named "Human Migration," this one is "about fish, jellyfish, lobsters, whales and birds." Bunker said she's intrigued by animals that travel great distances.

"There's a bird that migrates 7,000 miles without stopping, from Alaska to New Zealand. It goes 12 to 14 days without stopping. How does a bird do that? And the monarch butterflies migrate from Mexico to the U.S. and way up Canada. The dance is about movement, about going, and about arriving somewhere at the end."

Premiered in Hawaii, the aerial work for 15 is danced on trapezes sailing through the air and on the floor. Koesters created the original score.

Bunker hopes she can continue her own journeys back and forth between Hawaii and Arizona, nurturing her troupe in two different states.

"Right now, I have a job, a good job," she said, and for the first time in her arty life, she's putting money away for a retirement fund. And she has a core of dancers in Hawaii trained in both aerial and modern. Until the economic downturn, Bunker was planning to incorporate O-T-O in Hawaii as well, making it a dual-state company. "That's now on hold."

But she's still thinking of the future. She toured her troupe in Mexico and South America in the past, and next, she'd like to bring the dancers to Australia, New Zealand and Asia. Hawaii would give her a good jumping-off point.

Will the troupe perform again in Tucson, its birthplace?

"I hope so," she said. But funding in Arizona is bad right now; the strapped Tucson Pima Arts Council couldn't even give local arts groups the second half of the funds they'd been granted this year. And she lost her rehearsal space at the Historic YWCA, where the Rogue Theatre is now the sole tenant in the old gym where O-T-O held practices and classes.

This weekend's Tucson concert "was important to do because of the 25 years," she said. "But who knows what the future will bring? We may end up back here. If I came back to the mainland, it would be to Tucson."

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