Filler Take Duex

Ballet Arizona Revives Its Three-Year-Old Production Of 'Coppélia.'
By Margaret Regan

A TUCSON DANCE season crowded with modern, ethnic and ballet concerts takes its first steps this weekend with the opening of a major ballet that, ironically, was seen here just three years ago. Ballet Arizona kicks off the season with a repeat engagement of Coppélia.

There's a reason for that, says artistic director Michael Uthoff.

"I've been trying to get acquainted with the people here," he explains via a telephone interview. "There was a certain mistrust of me at the beginning. Not a great number of people attended (last time)."

The piece in question is a full-length, 19th-century ballet that will be given just a single performance Saturday night at the TCC Music Hall. (It plays nine shows in Phoenix, where Ballet Arizona is based.) The company last brought the show down the road in the 1993-'94 season, when Uthoff was still relatively new on the job. The former artistic director of the Hartford Ballet, Uthoff has slowly been building respect for the state ballet of Arizona. Three years, as he says, is "time enough" to bring his Coppélia back for a second look.

Uthoff has gradually been pushing the company toward a more contemporary version of ballet. Last season's best concert, for example, was The Masters, a compendium of three modern ballet works by the likes of George Balanchine, Paul Taylor and Antony Tudor. Even Uthoff's full-length ballets, such as last year's Romeo and Juliet, get a sleeker treatment, trimmed in length and stripped of their more hoary sentimentalities. Coppélia, a complicated 1870s tale of a scientist who brings a mechanical doll to life, is no exception to this Uthoff rule. Ballet Arizona's version will be darker in tone and shorter in length than most stagings.

"We perform it in two acts," Uthoff says. "Normally it's in three acts. What I had seen as a child...was usually saccharine. Dr. Coppélius was played as a little old guy who was tricked. I'm interested in the more morbid side of the story. It's interesting to look at the character in a sinister fashion. Why did he have the power? He's a kind of Frankenstein."

Image The slightly macabre scientist might strike a chord with those legions of ballet fans who see The Nutcracker every year. If Dr. Coppélius is a bit like the mysterious Drosselmeyer who annually brings the nutcracker to life in that Christmastime favorite, that's because both characters have the same creator, the writer E.T.A. Hoffman.

And despite Uthoff's tinkering, Coppélia, like The Nutcracker, remains what Tucson balletomanes seem to love best: a "classical ballet, with classical techniques," as Uthoff describes it. "It's very beautiful. It does have a story. It's dramatic, with humor. It's suitable for children. The music is vibrant."

Dancing to a taped rendition of Arthur Saint-Léon's original music, the cast of 31 performers includes Miguel Garcia as the scientist (he played Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet), Yen-Li Chen-Zhang as the doll Coppélia (she was Juliet), Gia Firicano as Swanilda, a village maiden, and Andrew Needhammer as Franz, the village youth whose soul is stolen to give the doll life.

Tucson may be getting first crack at Ballet Arizona this season (Coppélia opens in Phoenix next week) but it's not getting the whole season. The Old Pueblo will get the usual Nutcracker in December and Uthoff's version of another classic, Giselle, in April. What it won't get are the two concerts that sound most innovative. In October, in Scottsdale only, the company will dance an original work commissioned from Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who heads the dynamic Urban Bush Women, seen here at Centennial Hall last season. Three other new works complete the program for the concert, called New Dimensions. And Uthoff premieres his Ask Not..., a meditation set to '60s music, along with an older work, Awakenings, in Phoenix in March.

It's not, Uthoff says, that we're being punished for the city's low turnout for Ballet Arizona's appearances--"Over 1,000 people came to The Masters." The problem is mostly the intense competition for venues during the city's busy winter arts season. "It all boiled down to the availability of theatre dates. There's a pretty crowded calendar in Tucson every time we ask for something."

To make it up to the state's second city, Uthoff says, Ballet Arizona is offering cheap seats to the tune of $5 for New Directions, half price for Ask Not..., to Tucson season subscribers who want to make the journey north.

Ballet Arizona presents Coppélia at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 21, at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $29, $24 and $17. Children 12 and under get a 25 percent discount. Tickets are available at Dillard's (1-800-638-4253) or at the Ballet Arizona box office. For information or for reservations call 882-5022, ext. 771. TW

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