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Sweet Movement

Ballet Tucson closes its season with a variety of dance styles - and desserts!

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A revival of a 110-year-old Russian ballet about toys that come to life is the main course at the Dance & Dessert concerts this weekend.

Performed by Ballet Tucson for the first time, "The Fairy Doll" is a comedy divertissement danced in classic Russian style.

"It has three commedia dell'arte figures, a fairy doll and two Pierrots," says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana. "It's very cute but it's technically demanding."

The ballet started as an Austrian confection in 1888, but in 1903 the Russian brothers Nikolai and Sergei Legat restaged it in St. Petersburg and made it their own.

The precision of the Legats' steps, Cabana says, illustrates the old-style Vaganova technique that for generations was shorthand for Russian ballet. Ballet Tucson's artistic associates, Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, who set the work on the company dancers, are veterans of the technique—both had long careers at American Ballet Theatre, a powerhouse of classical dance.

Ballet Tucson is doing a 10-minute excerpt from the Legats' much longer work, but because of the rigorous dancing it requires, the piece is double-cast. Emily Speed and Alexandra Sermon alternate the part of the Fairy Doll over the five concerts, dancing to the Riccardo Drigo score. Four male dancers trade off on the part of the comical Pierrots—the traditional clowns dressed in white.

The popular annual Dance & Dessert shows reward dance lovers with a delectable array of desserts from local restaurants once the dancing is done.

But the concert itself is a dance feast, with an à la carte program of nine short dances by nine choreographers, four of them premieres, in a wide range of dance styles. The program demonstrates that classical dance is by no means the only dance form that this pro ballet company has mastered.

Yes, there's the Russian classicism of "The Fairy Doll," but modern, jazz and contemporary ballet are also on the menu. Audiences love the variety (the shows usually sell out), and the dancers do, too, Cabana says.

With so many performances, "we have multiple casts and the dancers get a chance to do a lot of things," she says. From her own career dancing with Cleveland Ballet and other companies, she remembers how refreshing it was when visiting choreographers saw her in a new light.

"Directors can pigeonhole dancers," she says. "With so many choreographers coming in for this show, they see the dancers in a different way. It's really fun for them—they get to spread their wings."

Dancers Michelle Sigl and Deanna Doncsecz, for instance, turn away from ballet altogether and leap into modern in "Shilly-Shally" by Charlotte Adams. Adams, a choreographer and dancer who once dazzled locals as a leading light in Tucson's late, lamented Tenth Street Danceworks, is now a dance professor at the University of Iowa; she's more than once brought her own troupe, Charlotte Adams and Dancers, to play New York.

Last summer she was back in Tucson, where she keeps a house, and began working with the two ballerinas on the new piece. During spring break in March, she returned to town and nailed down the final version.

"Shilly-Shally," making its debut at the Tucson concert, is a humorous "modern dance about indecisiveness—the dancers are changing clothes a lot," Cabana says. Set to a montage of contemporary music, from John Prine to Kamikazee, the work is a good match for the dancers' skills, she notes. "Michelle and Deanna are our strongest modern dancers."

The evening's new jazz piece comes courtesy of Chieko Imada, company assistant artistic director. Imada choreographed an evening's worth of tango for the evening-length Passionately Piazzolla concert, performed by the company in February.

She enjoyed it so much—"She really got into Piazzolla," Cabana says—that she wanted to try out jazz for Dance & Dessert.

Imada's new "Take Five" is in a "super-jazzy style," and the all-male cast of five dancers wear fedoras. The dance is a tribute to Dave Brubeck, the legendary jazz musician who died in December, set to his most famous piece.

Artistic associate Gardner tries his hand at contemporary choreography in his brand-new "Bottle Sticks." Though he danced classical ballet for years at American Ballet Theatre, Gardner also performed with White Oak Dance Project, the Baryshnikov troupe that ventured into modern dance. For "Bottle Sticks," he's made a contemporary ballet set to Middle Eastern music. Danced by eight women, it's "aerobic and energetic, with interesting rhythms," Cabana says.

Daniel Precup contributes another new contemporary ballet. A former principal dancer with Ballet Tucson, Precup has moved on to character roles—he made a convincing Piazzolla tango dancer in the February show—and he's also delved into choreography.

He set his new "Ne Me Quitte Pas," to a song by Jacques Brel. Jenna Johnson, the troupe's prima ballerina, dances the mournful love duet with Stuart Lauer.

Precup and Johnson, husband and wife in real life, reprise their longtime dance partnership in "Tavener," a ballet pas de deux created by former company choreographer Mark Schneider a dozen years ago. "Tavener" is an ambiguous dance "that each person will interpret in a different way," Cabana says.

Another Schneider ballet, the neoclassical "Waltzes," from the 1980s, is the concert opener.

"We haven't performed it since 2001," Cabana says. "I was looking at the DVD and it really stands up."

Set to a series of waltzes composed by Prokofiev, the dance for 12 women is inspired by the northern lights, and the costumes—cut out of World War II-era parachutes—are colored pale pink, blue and green.

"The fabric is lightweight silk and it moves beautifully," she says.

Five women get to dress up in goofy party dresses in "Birthday Variations," a comic ballet by UA dance prof Sam Watson. A favorite work the troupe has danced before, "Birthday" zigzags through seven different versions of the Happy Birthday song, from classical renditions by Haydn and Brahms to tango and ragtime riffs.

The entire company assembles on stage for the concert closer, "Red, White, Blue!" Imada and Cabana choreographed it in 2008, during the election battle between Barack Obama and John McCain. In a musical contrast to that precedent-setting campaign, they used old-fashioned tunes by John Philip Sousa.

"It's patriotic, high-energy and super-dynamic," Cabana says.

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