Amanda McKerrow has performed nearly every female part in the classic ballet Don Quixote, from the flower girl to the robust Mercedes.
When she danced Kitri, the ballet's female lead, her partner was Mikhail Baryshnikov.
It was "transcendent" to dance with the famous dancer, says McKerrow. A former American Ballet Theatre star, McKerrow this weekend debuts an abbreviated Don Quixote Suite that she and her husband, John Gardner, choreographed for Ballet Tucson's season opener.
In rehearsals, Baryshnikov "didn't like a lot of discussion," McKerrow says. "He was more physical—actions speak louder than words. It was important to be consistent. It was nerve-wracking. I was a little more edgy dancing with him. But it was totally worth it."
The Russian was artistic director of ABT for 10 years in the 1980s. After he choreographed his own full-length Don Quixote in 1980, it became a company staple. He hired McKerrow "and promoted me," she says, and danced the romantic part of Basilio to her Kitri.
Gardner also danced with Baryshnikov, both at ABT and with the White Oak Dance Project. While his wife worked her way through the female parts in Don Quixote, he performed every possible male role, from a bum to Basilio. Now retired from performing, McKerrow and Gardner work around the world choreographing and staging ballets, and come to Ballet Tucson every season as artistic associates, bringing their years of experience to the local company.
The two have pared the traditional evening-length Don Quixote down to a suite just 30 to 35 minutes long. They choreographed all new movements, with the exception of the famed Grand Pas de Deux, the tour de force duet that McKerrow used to dance with Baryshnikov.
"That pas de deux is a classic, based on Petipa," the Russian choreographer who debuted Don Quixote back in 1869, McKerrow notes.
The ballet has never hewed closely to Cervantes' massive 500-year-old novel. The new McKerrow/Gardner version centers primarily on the ballet's third and final act, when Kitri and Basilio celebrate their love in the wedding pas de deux, but McKerrow and Gardner have pulled in some scenes from Act 1.
"We had to have the toreadors," McKerrow says. "That's an element of the ballet that's traditional." And, of course, "we added in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza," who normally don't appear in the final act.
All 28 Ballet Tucson dancers—19 full company members and nine apprentices—will perform the work, along with a half-dozen children from the Ballet Arts school. Company star Jenna Johnson dances Kitri in three of the four performances, ceding the part to Megan Terry for the Saturday matinee. Stuart Lauer dances her true love, Basilio, while Johnson's real-life husband, Daniel Precup, is Don Quixote.
Elaborate Spanish-style costumes have been rented from City Ballet of San Diego, and a painted backdrop depicts a Spanish town from centuries ago.
Ballet Tucson has staged the Don Quixote Grand Pas de Deux before, says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana, "but this may be the beginning of a full-length Don Quixote. It would be a great staple for the company."
This weekend's concerts, at the UA's Stevie Eller Theatre, celebrate the beginning of Ballet Tucson's 26th season. At the gala opener Friday night, two guest dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet will dance the pas de deux from Esmeralda, choreographed in 1982 by Ben Stevenson of Houston Ballet.
The visitors, Lindsi Dec, a soloist featured in this month's Pointe magazine cover story, and Karel Cruz, whom Cabana calls a "fabulous Cuban dancer," are last-minute replacements for PNB's Margaret Mullin and Kiyon Gaines. (Mullin, a former Ballet Tucson dancer and Ballet Arts grad, recently won the Princess Grace Dance Fellowship; she was to have danced in her hometown of Tucson on her way to New York to collect her prize, but was sidelined by an injury.)
The guest performers will dance only in the gala Friday night. But all four of the weekend's concerts will feature Don Quixote Suite, as well as the premiere of Ascending and a revival of Firebird, Mark Schneider's version of the man-versus-machine story set to Stravinsky.
Schneider's futuristic Firebird, a longtime favorite of the company, has been tweaked a bit to take advantage of the current dancers' strengths.
"We haven't done it in a while," Cabana says. "We re-adapted it when we became a professional company, because we had more men."
Cabana and assistant artistic director Chieko Imada collaborated on the brand-new Ascending, inspired by the late Kim Terry, a longtime company volunteer and mother of dancer Megan Terry.
"We lost Kim in January," Cabana says. She died at age 55 after a short illness. "We loved that lady so much, and we wanted to do a tribute piece to her."
The work evolved after the earthquake and tsunami struck Imada's native Japan in March, killing thousands, and the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11 loomed, Cabana says. It's kept the framework of a mother-daughter story, but expanded into a larger meditation on death, loss and recovery.
Divided into three parts, the work begins as an examination of the "complexity of the mother-daughter relationship, the struggle for an independent identity, and separation and loss," Cabana says. Part 2 is an exploration of the afterlife, and the "third section is about figuring out a way to go on without a person you love. It's upbeat, ethereal and peaceful. It's about transcendence."
A musical piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, drawn from traditional English and Scottish country songs—"the most exquisite music I've ever heard," Cabana says—anchors the middle section.
Kids from the Ballet Arts school combine with the full company to make a cast of 40. Sierra Sebastian and Kaylene Garcia portray the daughter as a young girl and teen, and Megan Terry herself and Michelle Sigl share the part of the young adult.
"Megan really wanted to do it," Cabana says. "Deanna Doncsecz is fantastic as the mom."
The piece fits into the company's year-long theme of transformation, Cabana says.
"This is our 26th season," Cabana says, "and all our ballets for the season play with the idea of transformation."
The company has undergone its usual annual metamorphosis, tweaking its lineup of dancers. The new recruits—two men and four women—are all promising, Cabana says, hailing from troupes such as the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Houston Ballet.
"We have new guys that I'm excited about, and the new girls are really strong," she says.
The new concert gives them the chance to show off their capabilities to the Tucson audience, she adds, switching from the contemporary movement of Ascending and Firebird to the classical dance of Don Quixote Suite.