Earth Dances

Ballet Arizona Stretches A Bit To Find A Common Theme -- But It's Worth It.

By Margaret Regan

WHEN A BALLET company puts together a contemporary program, it's tricky to find a common theme for dances that don't necessarily tell stories. Geography is not the first thing that comes to mind, but Ballet Arizona settled on the title Earth Dances for its concert this weekend.

The pieces are not environmental or New Age works, though. The name comes from "the three choreographers using music specific to three geographic areas," explains artistic director Michael Uthoff.

Review Uthoff's own work, 1984's "Murmurs of the Stream," last seen on Arizona stages in 1993, is a collection of 11 dances set to Andean folk tunes from his native Chile. "Lady Lost Found," a work by hot choreographer Daniel Ezralow (zillions of TV viewers saw his Academy Awards choreography earlier this week) is a fast-paced dance that moves to seasonal Irish and Scottish folk tunes. And while you can't exactly pin down a geography for "Land's Edge," a piece that Uthoff first commissioned from Pilobolus for his Hartford Ballet 12 years ago, its music reminds Uthoff of "New England nights."

"I wouldn't have billed it as an 'earth dance,' " Jonathan Wolken said by phone from the Pilobolus studio in Connecticut, "but it does take place on some northern, far-flung isle."

Wolken, who composed the work along with Alison Becker Chase and Robby Barnett, flew to Phoenix to set the piece on nine Ballet Arizona dancers. He found Arizona's topography "gorgeous, outstanding. I arrived in the middle of a rain storm...But I looked at those red hills and said, 'God, almighty, I could see those going to 120 degrees.' "

At 35 minutes, "Land's Edge" is one of the longest pieces in the Pilobolus repertoire, though the troupe cut back its original nine dancers to six for its own performances. (The much admired Pilobolus collective coincidentally played Centennial Hall last month.) It's also distinctive among Pilobolus creations because it tells a story, sort of. The modern dance company's signature is abstract, wildly inventive moves.

"Land's Edge" is "a typically Pilobolean piece in that it's highly physical," Wolken said. "But it moves from the entirely abstract--where movement is a value above all others--to a story. The story is interestingly dark and resonant. It's about isolated people and a dead body that washes up on shore and what happens in the village."

Paul Sullivan composed the music that reminds Uthoff of New England; Wolken called it a "beautiful, evocative score that has endured."

Uthoff's "Murmurs of the Stream" incorporates traditional pan-pipe music played by the likes of Inti-Illimani, and its 17 dancers wear colorful peasant garb as they move through an amalgam of folk and ballet steps. It has a political history unusual for a dance. Commissioned by the U.S. government in 1984, it uses the metaphor of a stream that learns the stories, happy and sad, of the people it passes on its way to the sea. What sounds relatively innocuous was too assertive for a Chile in the grip of the Pinochet dictatorship. The Chilean National Ballet was rehearsing the work when the government censors became alarmed.

"Before opening night, it was almost canceled," Uthoff remembered. "It was allowed to go on, but then it was banned later for several years. It's a beautiful work, but if you're threatened by it you have a problem. "

Augusto Pinochet recently was named "senator for life," but the country now has a democratically elected president and Congress. The dance, which once won a Critic's Circle best of the year prize, is being revived next month in Chile, Uthoff said.

He set it on Ballet Arizona when he first took the job, "to introduce myself to the community." Divided into 11 sections, the work is "very subtle and humane. It's full of passion and compassion. It's not a literal story, but it has a beginning, middle and end. It expresses a painful experience of my original home under military rule, but it offers some rays of hope."

Ezralow, deep into Oscar rehearsals last week, was not available to describe his "Lady Lost Found." A choreographer in what Uthoff calls the "Paul Taylor mode," Ezralow once upon a time was a dancer with both Taylor and Pilobolus. Nowadays, he works all over the map, crossing genres into theatre, opera and rock (he's choreographed for Sting, David Bowie and U2), and traveling to such places as Paris and Rotterdam to set his works on ballet companies. His "Mandala," a dance/video work, is playing right now in Los Angeles.

"Lady Lost Found" has "quirky movements, it's jovial, athletic and humorous," said Uthoff. "It showcases five of our dancers," who go Celtic in kilts.

Percy Granger's Irish/Scottish score requires some fast-paced acrobatics, especially for the work's trio of tipsy sailors. A quartet slows the action down with a dance to the strains of "Danny Boy," giving Tucsonans the second chance in two weeks to wallow in that sentimental tune. Last week's Irish Festival deliciously deteriorated into a "Danny Boy" contest, with each and every comer singing the mournful song of loss. The Ezralow dance piece undoubtedly marks the first time "Danny Boy" has been dressed up with ballet; and indeed "Lady Lost Found" makes its Arizona premiere in the Ballet Arizona concert. TW

Ballet Arizona presents Earth Dances at 8 p.m. Friday, March 27, and at 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, March 28, at the PCC Center for the Arts Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $15, $25 and $33 for adults; $13.50, $23 and $30 for seniors; $7.50, $12.50 and $16.50 for kids under age 12. Student rush tickets, subject to availability, are $7.50 one hour before curtain. Call the PCC box office at 206-6988, Dillard's at 1-800-638-4253, or Ballet Arizona at 1-888-3BALLET, for reservations and information.

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