The phone rang one day last fall at the office of Art.if.Act Dance Project, one of Tucson's newest dance troupes.
The caller, arts promoter Larry Lang, had a surprising question: Would Art.if.Act be interested in touring China?
The answer was yes, emphatically.
"It's unbelievable that we've gotten this invitation," says Claire Hancock, Art.if.Act's co-artistic director and co-founder (along with Ashley Bowman). "It was a phone call out of the blue."
Next Wednesday, 28 dancers, 11 musicians and three tech people are departing Tucson for a 28-day tour of China, where the troupe will give 18 performances in cities large and small, from Beijing to Lishui.
"It's like putting together a Broadway show," Hancock says, marveling at the unheard-of opportunity for a troupe just finishing its second season.
Before the dancers and musicians fly to Shanghai, the company is premiering the concert—The Great American Dance Tour—for their fans in Tucson.
They'll perform Sunday and Monday at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, at the UA, where most of the dancers are either students in the School of Dance or alumni. The company is a pick-up troupe, Hancock explains, hiring dancers for each show. Musical director Ben Nisbet, a violinist with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra, tapped his colleagues to play the music live, along with a few student musicians at the UA, where he is currently earning an MFA.
At the request of their Chinese hosts, Bowman and Hancock choreographed an all-American show. The concert is a journey through popular dance, from the Charleston of the 1920s, through tap and jazz, to the break-dancing of the 1980s.
"It's a little bit away from our Art.if.Act aesthetic, which is usually more avant-garde," Hancock says. "But we value entertainment, and as performers, we love to dive into it."
A sample video of the dances, posted on Art.if.Act's website, shows spirited numbers that could have been lifted out of movie musicals, with dancers dressed in top hats, leotard tuxes and beautiful dresses.
"The Chinese want to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers," Hancock says, only half-joking.
With only six weeks of rehearsals, scheduled during vacation breaks at the UA, Hancock and Bowman constructed 20 dances. The two choreographers pored through old videos as they researched historic dances, and the dancers watched, too, immersing themselves in old-time moves.
As a result, the two-act show has a "retrospective feel," Hancock notes.
The Chinese Ministry of Culture is picking up the tab for transportation, lodging and food, and Lang advised the company to set at least one dance to Chinese music as a goodwill gesture.
"Our one balletic piece, 'Yellow River,' is a tribute to the Chinese," Hancock says. Performed to one movement from the Yellow River Piano Concerto by Chinese composer Xian Xinghai, "It embodies the movement of water. We avoided political overtones."
The troupe's singer, Katherine Byrnes, who performs regularly around Tucson, will sing the Chinese work "The Chrysanthemum Chorus."
Even though their travel expenses will be covered, the company is still incurring quite a few expenses by putting on such a large show. Art.if.Act's directors are hoping Tucsonans will be excited about the great Chinese road trip—and, in turn, will buy tickets to the hometown concerts.
"We've been using the slogan, 'Built in Tucson, bound for China,'" Hancock says. "We're taking this out into the world, representing something larger than Tucson."
PPicture Lucy way, way up in the sky with her diamonds.
That's where she'll be in Come Together, ZUZI! Dance Company's Beatles-themed music-and-dance concert this weekend.
Carie Schneider is trippy Lucy, dancing high up in the air on trapezes, in a piece she choreographed; it's called, appropriately, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."
That's not the only Beatles song that lends itself to a high-wire act. The troupe's "Many Limbs" Youth Aerial Company also takes to the trapezes in "To the Benefit of Mr. Kite," choreographed by Alison Hart.
"It's a circus piece with trapezes," artistic director Nanette Robinson says. "This show has a lot of aerial dance," along with modern dance on the ground. There will be 13 dances in all, performed by 25 dancers, including pros, apprentices and teens.
The concert also has plenty of Beatles music, 20 songs from the 270-tune Beatles' catalog, Robinson says, including "Blackbird," "Lady Madonna," "Norwegian Wood" and "Let It Be."
Robinson got the idea for an all-Beatles show two years ago from a dance student's parent, and this concert is as much about the music as the dance. Beatles recordings alternate with live-music versions by a band of no fewer than three singers and six musicians, including ZUZI! regulars Pablo Peregrina, a singer/guitarist, and singer Sally Withers. Other instruments include bass, drums, congas and mandolin. All nine musicians are onstage throughout the show.
Some recorded Beatles tunes covered by other artists are also used, partly to show how varied interpretations of Beatles music can be. "Blackbird" is danced by the troupe's apprentices to two successive versions of the song, one by Sarah McLachlan, the other by Bobby McFerrin, each evoking distinct moods.
The dancers' costumes are "completely '60s," Robinson says, tending toward purple bell bottoms and paisley, peasant blouses and checkered mini-shifts. Puppets Amongus' Matt Cotten, famed in town for his giant-head All Souls' Procession puppets, has created replicas of the Fab Four in their "Yellow Submarine" period. Robinson hints that some stilt-walkers may even show up to heighten the circus atmosphere. A 1960s Peter Max painting, with a rainbows and a face in the clouds, has been reproduced as a painted mural on one wall.
The concert opens with "Come Together," performed as a parade, with the cavalcade of colorfully costumed dancers prancing onstage. Many of the dances are lighthearted: In a "Lady Madonna" medley choreographed by Robinson, Ekida Laurie portrays Madonna as a harried mom who finds an escape involving red lingerie. "Rain," another Robinson piece, features four large umbrellas and the entire cast of dancers.
But a few works are more somber. Company member Mechelle Flemming gives her dance "She's Leaving Home" a dark dimension, opening with flashlights on a stage otherwise unlit. Guest artist Darrell Wilmore made a dance for six out of the bleak "Eleanor Rigby."
And the concert as a whole has a serious side. "We had the title, Come Together, by last fall," Robinson says, long before the January rampage that left six dead and 13 injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Robinson read an article then declaring, 'This is a time for Tucson to come together,'" she relates. "It was synchronistic." Plans for the concert were in place, "and ZUZI is about bringing people together."