Financially troubled Ballet Arizona has all but abandoned Tucson for the duration of its woes, coming to town only for The Nutcracker in December. Traveling classical companies have made themselves scarce, too. Some years the likes of Houston Ballet and Ballet Nacional de Cuba have treated local balletomanes to classics on the order of Swan Lake and Giselle, but this season the professional ballerinas have taken their tutus elsewhere. That leaves ballet lovers only the regular concerts staged by the city's proliferating ballet studios for kids and student performances at the UA.
Into this dearth of pirouettes and pas de deux steps Ballet Arts Ensemble. A small company billing itself as a "professional chamber ballet," Ballet Arts has been slowly coalescing the last few years under the direction of Mary Beth Cabana.
"We've been trying to resurface carefully and test the waters," says Cabana, who is also director of the respected Ballet Arts school. The troupe is a resurgence of a company that flowered in the late '80s and early '90s, and its members are adults who get paid for their dancing. They gave a performance a year ago that drew a decent crowd, and the Ensemble is staging this year's only concert this weekend at Pima College.
Dance & Dessert features some 10 short works, most of them ballet, but a few modern pieces have been added in the interests of diversity. Performed by 22 dancers, the concert is offered in small, readily digestible bites separated by a sweet interlude. Two 40-minute programs wrap around a half-hour devoted to dining on desserts donated by local restaurants. Pianist Samuel Curtis Burton plays the piano while patrons dip into icing and scarf down whipped cream.
"We're trying to make it more friendly than regular concerts," says Cabana, explaining the notion behind the "wonderful" desserts.
But the concert doesn't rest solely on its dessert laurels. Some of the dance talent is formidable, including a mix of professional ballet dancers now living in town, UA profs, local modern dancers, advanced UA students and high school "apprentices" drawn from the ranks of Ballet Arts' studio. Among the dancers are Katherine McDonnell, an alumna of the Los Angeles Ballet, and Mark Schneider, formerly of Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio. Schneider, the troupe's resident choreographer, composed several pieces for the concert.
Cabana herself, a former soloist with the Cleveland Ballet and a guest star with Edward Villella at Ballet Oklahoma, contributes a trio of works. Her neoclassical "Classical Symphony," is a three-movement work set to music by Prokofiev. She restages the famous "Corsaire Pas de Deux" for Cesar Rubio, an accomplished UA student, and Leigh Ann Barber, a professional dancer who moved to town a year ago. Cabana's "The Dove" is "a sculptural piece, a pas de deux in which each person becomes the wing of a dove." Elizabeth George, a UA dance student who is getting ready to launch herself as a professional dancer, performs the piece with Thomas Gilliam. The taped music, "Requiem" by Andrew Lloyd Weber, is sung by British wunderkind Charlotte Church.
The modern genre is ably represented by Sam Watson, who performs a guest-star turn in his "Wake-Up Call." This is the same UA prof who so memorably danced a reverse striptease at a university concert last fall, provocatively adding button-down shirt and other business attire to his workaday underwear and black socks.
Ensemble member Chieko Imada, the fluid dancer best known for her work in the modern troupe Tenth Street Danceworks, dances a modernist solo choreographed for her by Charlotte Adam, Tenth Street's artistic director. Imada, who also teaches at Ballet Arts, herself choreographed "Hibiki," to the kodo drums of her native Japan. Hibiki, says Cabana, is Japanese for "echo."
Popular dance gets an outing too. Actor Joe McGrath and Mia Hanson, who has danced with Up With People, sashay through "social dances from the turn of the century to the present."
Cabana said that the troupe disbanded a few years back so that she could focus on developing her school. Now that the school is well established, Cabana has retooled the pro troupe with a couple of goals in mind. The company not only provides a new opportunity for her advanced students, some of whom have become apprentices in the Ensemble, but it gives the city a much needed chance to see classical ballet. This concert's combo of dance styles, Cabana hopes, will do a little proselytizing for the art form.
"I hope that people who are not necessarily ballet fans will come to see the other work and enjoy the ballet," she say. "And that people who are not necessarily modern fans will do the reverse."
Ballet Arts Ensemble presents Dance & Dessert at 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, February 26 and 27, at the PCC Center for the Arts Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets, which include dessert, are $15, $13 for PCC employees and students with ID, available at the Center for the Arts box office (206-6988) and Ballet Arts, 200 S. Tucson Blvd. (623-3373).