"The bed is just gorgeous," says artistic director Linda Walker. "It's bright and colorful. It looks like a whole bunch of mattresses piled up. But it's an optical illusion. It's really just fabric, stuffing, nails and a staple gun. It's so tall, you need a ladder to get in."
The dancer who needs that ladder is the Perfect Princess, a royal personage so sensitive she can feel a pea through layers and layers of quilts. Hallie Edmonds, an "exquisite ballerina" who's a senior at Salpointe Catholic High School, dances the princess in this weekend's concerts at the Leo Rich Theatre. In addition to the story ballet, the concert features a number of short pieces.
Choreographed by the company's co-artistic director, Gary McKenzie, a former dancer with Florida Ballet, San Diego Ballet and others, the new one-act Princess and the Pea is based on the classic tale by Hans Christian Andersen.
"I was reading the story to my granddaughters, and I thought, 'What a cute ballet!'" Walker says. "It has humor. It's a fun story."
The story had already been translated into the Broadway musical Once Upon a Mattress, complete with script, songs and dancing, but Walker says she was confident her young company could convey the tale almost entirely through movement.
"We're very good at pantomime," she says, "and we'll put a brief synopsis in the program."
The set and costumes will also help. A painted backdrop will suggest a castle interior; a throne will be resplendent in blue and gold; and a corps of courtiers will prance about in royal red.
The Tucson troupe is known for its story ballets, especially its popular Southwest Nutcracker, which annually transports the Germanic Christmas tale to the Arizona desert. Its principal dancers are teenagers, but they're well-trained performers who study in the summertime at ballet companies around the country.
Simon Wexler, 13, who plays a prince dissatisfied with a bevy of prospective brides, has won full scholarships to summer programs at Pacific Northwest Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
"He's extremely mature for his age, and looks 15 or 16," Walker says. An eighth-grader at the Hebrew Academy who has studied with Walker since he was little, he can now execute five or six pirouettes in a row.
Krista Zegura, a senior at University High School, plays his mother, the queen.
"She's been dancing for 11 or 12 years, and she's gorgeous. She has the maturity to handle the pantomime and the role of the queen."
Mark Nichols, a junior at Academy of Tucson charter high school, plays a court jester who serves as a narrator of sorts. In the ballet, the prince first rejects a series of four marriage-minded princesses, danced by Brittany DeGrofft, Alyssa Martinez, Cassie Akpan and Jessica Holland. Each princess has her own solo.
"All the brides try out the mattress. It's very comical."
But the prince is intrigued by a disheveled young woman who arrives at the castle on a stormy night.
The queen is skeptical of the girl's claim to royal blood and so subjects her to the pea test. Only a real princess would be able to feel the hard pea through the layers of soft quilts. The bed gets its star turn in the subsequent "Mattress March."
"The queen doesn't really want her son to be married," Walker explains. "So she devises the test. But the princess twitches all night and proves she's of royal descent."
The 30-minute Princess and the Pea will be the concert finale. Before the fairy tale, the company dancers will perform a series of short pieces.
"Solus," by the late John Henry, features members of the senior company dancing to Vivaldi. Like McKenzie, Henry was associated with Santa Barbara's State Street Ballet, where he was founding resident choreographer. He also danced with San Francisco Ballet and Merce Cunningham. The troupe is dancing the piece as a tribute to Henry, who died in 1996 of AIDS after a career that included choreographing at least 60 dances. (Henry performed in Tucson in 1995, in the one-man show Singing Myself a Lullaby, a dance/video about his life and illness.)
"Les Oiseaux," by McKenzie, sends 14 girls fluttering onto the stage dressed as birds. This marks the public premiere of the piece, which Walker calls "colorful and beautiful." McKenzie also contributes "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik," a group dance to Mozart for a mixed group of junior and senior company members.
Jessica Holland, 15, one of the snubbed princesses in The Princess and the Pea, keeps up the Mozart theme in her own choreography, "Classic Charm," set partly to Mozart.
"This is our emerging choreographer piece," a regular feature of Tucson Regional's concerts, says Walker. "It's always by a student who's a first-time choreographer. It's a beautiful, classical ballet."
Holland studied choreography last summer at the Regional Dance America conference in Utah, Walker says.
"She's been dancing for 11 years, but she's not in the piece. She directs six girls and one boy from the senior company. You'd never believe that a 15-year-old choreographed it."
Walker herself composed a series of short pieces for the junior apprentices, a group of 18 dancers who are 10 to 14 years old.
"This lets the audience see what's coming down the line."