Triple Play: Ballet Tucson Presents a Trio of Decidedly Different Dances This Weekend

Jenna Johnson in "Swan Lake."

This weekend at Leo Rich, Ballet Tucson is performing three decidedly different dances.   

First up, Swan Lake, one of the most beloved of classic ballets, will be on a local stage for the first time in years. The troupe will perform only Act II, but that’s the work’s most gorgeous part:  reams of ethereal ballerinas, dance to the music of Tchaikovsky.

Next is a brand-new contemporary work by Amanda Morgan, a rising young choreographer from Pacific Northwest Ballet. “Unraveling Seams,” her piece, “promises to capture the spirit of female creativity and resilience.” 

And in the grand finale, famed Broadway artist Ann Hampton Callaway sings her own songs live, while the entire troupe moves around her doing jazz moves. 

“Ann brings out the best of Broadway,” says Margaret Mullin, the company’s new associate artistic director, and her performance is “a jazz, ballet, Broadway hybrid.” 

The unusual concert is connected to the Tucson Desert Song Festival, an annual enterprise that celebrates musicians from in town and out. Ballet Tucson has been with the festival from day one, 10 years ago, Mullin says, importing musicians to blend their music with dance.

“It’s so rewarding, creating opportunities for talented artists,” Mullin says. And it’s rewarding for Ballet Tucson’s Chieko Imada as well. Each year, Imada choreographs dances for the troupe to go with the singers’ performance. 

“Chieko has a passion for it,” Mullin says. “It pushes her to explore her own choreography.”

This year the festival is honoring women artists, and Ballet Tucson is showcasing not only women musicians, but female dancers and choreographers as well. 

“We decided to craft the entire rep as a celebration of women and song and dance,” Mullin says. 

Swan Lake was an easy choice. 

The ballet was conceived by Julius Reisinger in 1877 and revived by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivenov in 1895, and the music is Tchaikovsky’s. But despite this gaggle of men, the ballet “highlights women so beautifully,” Mullin says. “And we have a great group for it.”

Sixteen ballerinas in the core play the swans. They, along with Princess Odette. are women who have been turned into swans by an evil magician.

The company’s grand ballerina Jenna Johnson portrays the doomed Odette, who longs to revert to human form. Vasily Boldin dances Siegfried, the prince who loves her.

Taylor Johnson, another talented ballerina, alternates with Jenna for the role of Odette. Her Siegfried is played by Skylar Burson.

Casey Johnson is the evil Rathbart.

There are plenty of reasons that the ballet is so enduring.

“There is a love story, beautiful core work, a pas de deux, and those four little swans that are iconic for ballet,” says Mullin. 

The cygnets are the swans who lace themselves together and  dance as one, in a scene that always enthralls the
audience.

“That’s a very difficult dance where they’re holding onto each other,” Mullin says. “I always have respect for the ladies doing that. I’ve done it before and it’s not easy.”

Mullin knows of what she speaks. She was a renowned solo ballerina at Pacific Northwest Ballet before coming home to Tucson to help run the city’s only pro ballet company.

And she’s familiar with the work of Amanda Morgan, the choreographer who created the concert’s second dance.  

“She has gotten a lot of attention around the country,” says Mullin. “She has a lot of promise.” 

Morgan, who is also a dancer, tapped composer Brian Lawlor for the music, selecting five of his works. 

“She’s done a really moving piece with a great contrast to the other two works,” Mullin points out. “It is much more contemporary, very different type of music as well.” 

For this very modern piece, the dancers will be wearing all black.  Even so, the emotional work hints to “a way to joy and peace” in this difficult time.   

The grand finale has a clever title: “Ballet the Callo-way.” Broadway singer and composer, Callaway, will sing her own songs for some 40 minutes, joining a cast of 26 dancers. 

“Ann will wander around the stage amongst the dancers,” Mullin says. “She’ll have a microphone.” 

And from time to time she’ll play the piano, and the dancers come in and out. 

Callaway has crafted songs for the likes of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli, and has won countless awards for her work. For this show she invited Imada to select seven songs of her own liking. Callaway herself chose one of her songs for a solo at the end of the show. 

The songs are all about love, just in time for Valentine’s Day, but not all of them are of the romantic variety. 

“One scene is the love of a family, and a lonely person coming by and being welcomed,” Mullin says. 

Imada’s dances have a “jazz layer,” and the costumes have a “lounge kind of feeling.”

The men’s clothes are simple and sleek, with blue pants and collared shirts. The women are in jazzy bar style dresses, but they outshine the men with color. 

Every single woman wears a different hue. As Mullin puts it, “the women are in all the colors of the rainbow.”  

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