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So Into Beauty

FUNHOUSE coaxes a renowned UA prof out of retirement to craft a dance for "Dancing by Moonlight"


John M. Wilson's choreography has not been seen on Tucson stages for seven long years, since he left his post as professor of dance and international studies at the UA.

"I retired in 2001," Wilson says cheerfully by phone. "It's just zipped on by."

A revered dean of Tucson dance, Wilson taught at the UA for 25 years, instructing his students not only in modern dance, but in the history and anthropology of the art form. His departure left a gaping scholarly vacuum in the UA dance program, which was partially filled only after the arrival two years ago of modern-dance prof Doug Nielsen, who shares Wilson's international outlook.

But if UA students no longer benefit from Wilson's expertise, Tucson audiences will get a rare chance to see his choreography this weekend, in Dancing by Moonlight, FUNHOUSE movement theater's spring concert.

Wilson has re-worked a 1996 duet, "Spring's Awakening," and set it on two young dancers, and added on an all-new quartet, "Winter Forest," to precede it. He's also written a haiku that will be voiced-over during the dance.

The new work "is piece 97 in my repertoire," Wilson says, tallying up the dances he's composed in his long career. "I thought I was done at 96."

The four women in the new quartet "evoke the forest." Dressed in white, they represent the snowy winterscape, and remain on stage even after the duet commences.

"Underneath the snow, alive and awakening, the two dancers in the duet spring out as dragonflies," he says.

The winter passage will be danced to music by a German group called Im Silo--"in silo"--whose musicians literally "go inside empty grain silos and play strings and woodwinds. The music is echoing, bewitching."

The Germanic music leads into an African composition played by the Kronos Quartet. "It's very contemporary, rhythmic. You wouldn't guess it's from Africa. It's rich, playful, polyrhythmic."

Wilson says he's been busy writing in his retirement, instead of choreographing, cranking out short stories, a detective mystery ("it's a kick") and even a novel, as yet unpublished. He co-edited a dance biography, Margaret H'Doubler: The Legacy of America's Dance Education Pioneer, published last year by Cambria Press.

He enjoyed making a dance again, "but I don't think I'll get to 100" dances, he says.

He just may if FUNHOUSE artistic director Lee Anne Hartley has anything to do with it. It was Hartley who talked him into doing No. 97.

"I accomplished the impossible," Hartley crows. "I kept asking, and he finally said, 'Yes.' I have a hard time taking no for an answer."

Plus, she and Wilson have a longtime connection. When Wilson was at the University of Utah, he recruited her to the MFA program there, and later when he was at the UA, he hired her as temporary faculty in a replacement job.

"I have been refusing invitations solidly for 10 years," Wilson says. "But she asked for a piece that happens to be a favorite of mine, 'Spring Awakening.' I said, 'It's hard.' She said, 'I have just the dancers for it.'"

Nicholas Duran, a UA dancer, and Sabina Burke, who has danced with Zeffirelli 8, handle the duet. The quartet dancers are FUNHOUSE regulars Sherry Mulholland and Annie Whitish; Sukie Keita, who's danced with Thom Lewis Dance and O-T-O; and Zeffirelli 8 dancer Iva Pavlakovic.

"I did quite well recruiting other dancers," Hartley says.

Since the departure of co-founder Lewis last year, her company has enlisted guest choreographers as well. In addition to Wilson, for Dancing by Moonlight, she also lined up Beth Braun Miscione. A dancer/choreographer with ZUZI who heads the dance program at University/Rincon High School, Braun Miscione set a new piece on eight teen dancers from Ballet Rincon, an eastside studio with which Hartley has a continuing relationship.

"They have loved her," Hartley says. "A choreographer needs sensitivity with young dancers."

Her "Instantaneity of Vision," set to cello music played by Yo-Yo Ma, is a lyrical movement piece inspired by paintings by Monet and the writings of Buddhist meditation practitioner Pema Chödrön.

Hartley's own premiere, "How Deadly Are Your Sins?," is a 22-minute comedy with seven dancers "each portraying a sin, in ridiculous costumes." Each of the sins competes with the others for title of worst sin ever.

Set to a series of pop works, by everybody from Stevie Ray Vaughan to the Beatles to Warren Zevon, the dance "begins and ends with a group dance." In between are sin solos, duets and trios, and sinful cheerleaders egging the contestants on.

Hartley plays a pregnant Lust, complete with faux belly. Mulholland likewise wears a fat suit for Gluttony. Michelle Norush is Greed; Andrea Murray is Rage; Kiona Brown is Sloth; Karyn Reim is Envy; and Whitish is Vanity.

"You'll never think of sins in quite the same way," promises Hartley, who says she was inspired by an article in the alumni magazine of Notre Dame University personifying the seven deadly sins.

Hartley reprises "By the Light of the Moon," a 2005 group work that evokes old-time rural Ireland. Seven dancers perform to the music of The Chieftains, Secret Garden and Dead Can Dance. Brown and Duran portray a young couple, while Hartley, Murray, Norush, Mulholland and Reim take on the other parts.

Its three sections, inspired by the poem "The Phases of the Moon" by W.B. Yeats, "reflect on life, and on making choices," Hartley says.

Wilson, for his part, says he's happy about the choice he made to get back to the studio, at least for now.

"I'm just enjoying these dances so much," he exclaims. "I am so into beauty."

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