Nathan Dryden, one of the best aerial dancers Tucson has ever produced, returns to town this weekend to fly through the air in ZUZI's 15th Anniversary Solstice Gala Performance.
He'll dance an aerial solo, "The Birds in Dreams Are Souls," which he choreographed in 2007. Dryden will also do a dance on the ground, "Pros Do Not Leave Putting to Chance," a structured improvisation with ZUZI dancer Carie Schneider.
Now studying for an MFA in dance at the University of Utah, Dryden left town in 2006 to dance in Seattle. Before that, he danced with nearly every modern troupe in town, including NEW ARTiculations and the now-dormant O-T-O Theatre of Dance.
He was a founding member of ZUZI! Dance Company, a big reason he's been invited back to help celebrate the troupe's 15th anniversary.
The gala concert Friday night at the UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre is a "huge statement for the arts, for dance in particular," says a jubilant Nanette Robinson, artistic director, who co-founded the troupe with Nancy Mellan in the 1997-1998 season.
"For ZUZI to have this longevity, to persist through all the struggles of a low-budget arts group, is amazing. There are so many dancers who have passed through these doors."
Dryden will not be the only guest artist returning to ZUZI for the milestone concert. Frequent guest Greg Colburn of Tucson will dance "The Last Dance," a solo he choreographed to spoken word.
Ekida Sarana Laurie, a company member who recently moved to Nebraska, comes back to town to reprise "Potato," a quintet she composed for last year's solstice concert. It's inspired by the Millet painting "The Gleaners," which depicts French peasants picking up scraps of wheat in the fields.
"It's a very sweet piece," Robinson says.
Lindianne Sarno, a musician and pianist who now lives in Alaska, returns to play once again for "Cocooned Light." A former Tucson resident, Sarno composed the music for the Robinson dance eight years ago, and played it live. She'll be joined by UA student Trevor Barroero on percussion. Barroero played marimbas in a ZUZI show as a child, Robinson says.
The dance for five has Monica Boccio and Mechelle L. Tunstall gyrating on colorful aerial silks draped from the rafters at Eller.
"It looks like a maypole," Robinson says.
"Cocooned Light" premiered in 2004, in the annual ZUZI solstice show. Each winter, the troupe marks the winter solstice—the shortest day and longest night of the calendar—with a joyous concert keyed in to light. This year's edition is a retrospective, combining older pieces drawn from previous solstice shows and other ZUZI concerts with new works.
There are 16 modern dances in all, some aerial, some danced on the ground. The dancers will perform to recorded and live music, played by in-house guitarist/singer Pablo Peregrina and vocalist Sally Withers.
Among the new works is Robinson's "El Triste" (The Sad One), a solo she dances to a song popularized by Mexican singer José José.
"It's very slow, in Spanish. It's about how sad it was to say goodbye," Robinson notes. Peregrina performs the song live.
Another Robinson premiere, "Nocturne," is a "structural improv" that developed out of a class she teaches in Skinner releasing technique. A multigenerational cast of 11 dancers and students performs to a recording by the Kronos Quartet.
Company member Tunstall debuts "40 Hillside Road." With a title drawn from her childhood address, the piece explores life's journeys, Robinson says. Tunstall dances, along with fellow ZUZI-ites Lauryn Bianco and Kali Lucey.
Tunstall also choreographed the concert's opening piece, the aerial work "A Memory of Light," to be danced by the troupe's nine apprentices.
ZUZI dancers Melissa Buckheit and Sara Anderson Stewart both created new dances about women. Buckheit's "All American Woman" is an aerial duet she performs with apprentice Molly Stack. With a video backdrop by Noah Stack and a soundscape that's mostly spoken word by Buckheit, it "critiques the image of women in the media," Robinson says. Stewart's quintet, "Harder Than It Needs to Be," is "really fun—a fast dance to tango music" by Piazzolla.
Schneider's "Galactic Starlight" is a new work for the youth company, choreographed in collaboration with the young dancers to recorded music.
Among the revived works are Robinson's aerial piece "Falling Angels and Broken Wings." Lucey dances the duet with Lee Rayment, an actor who dances with ZUZI for the first time. Other reprises are "Me and My Doll," "Shoes" and "Evening Sky at Solstice."
To mark the anniversary, Robinson and company decided to perform the show in the sleek Stevie Eller Dance Theatre instead of its own theater in the Historic YWCA. That 1930s theater is more workaday than the glamorous Eller, but it's part of ZUZI's formula for success. The company earns income by running dance classes in the building and renting out the theater for dance and music concerts by outside groups.
Another reason for the troupe's longevity, Robinson says, is the groundwork laid by co-founder Nancy Mellan. "It was her inspiration and tenacity that brought this together in the first place."
Robinson and Mellan first met as dance students at Temple University in Philadelphia. Years later, they both turned up in Tucson and decided to form their own modern-dance company, Robinson says. "If it weren't for Nancy, it never would have happened."
Mellan left after four years, but not before giving the troupe its name. "Zuzi" is Hebrew for "move it," Robinson says, adding that the dancers will keep on doing exactly that.
"We still struggle financially, but we will continue and grow every day."