When Marlowe Katowney was 35 years old, his grandmother gave him an order.
"You need to learn to weave," she told him.
"I said yes," he remembers. "You could never say no to my grandma."
None of Mary Ann Morse's other descendants had picked up the traditional Navajo craft, and she intuited that grandson Marlowe would. Sure enough, with the help of her lessons he took to the loom. Now in his early 40s, Katowney has been weaving ever since. In fact, he says, he weaves all the time —even during a phone interview last week.
"I'm weaving right now," he said. And he'll keep it up on a stage this weekend.
Katowney, a Navajo tribal member who grew up in Winslow just south of the Navajo Nation, will have a starring role in Woven, ZUZI Dance Company's 20th annual Solstice show.
Each year, the troupe celebrates the winter Solstice—the shortest day and longest night of the year—with a concert that aims to bring light into the darkness. This year's concert uses weaving as a metaphor for humanity's connectedness to the universe, says ZUZI artistic director Nanette Robinson.
But Katowney's performance will be literal: he will sit on the stage with a small loom and weave a traditional Navajo piece. While he works his way through weft and warp, he'll tell the story of how his grandmother, who died at 92 last year, saved the family weaving tradition by passing it on to him.
His segment, appearing at the beginning of Part Two of the show, is aptly called "What I Learned from My Grandmother."
The spoken-word weaving piece is an outlier in a concert that consists mostly of dance and music. Primarily choreographed by ZUZI's Robinson, Woven features a number of guest artists besides Katowney, including musician Glenn Weyant, maskmaker Lauren Raine and choreographers Mirela Roza and Karenne Koo.
Koo will give Tucson dance fans a look at her new company, Dancesequence, in the piece "She Who Wove the World," a tribute to Spider Woman. A grandmother figure in the traditional beliefs of the Navajo and other Southwest tribes, Spider Woman is said to have woven the universe together and to have taught the Navajo to weave. (A soaring rock formation in Canyon de Chelly is named for image.) Several Dancesequence performers, including Roo, will join community dancers in the work.
Koo, a New York dancer, choreographer and teacher, moved to Tucson in 2013, and now teaches improvisational dance at the Mettler studios and at ZUZI. She was inspired to create her new company in part by her job at Arts for All, an organization that trains kids with and without disabilities to dance and perform.
"I started to realize that dance is a connecting activity," Koo says, "and I wanted to explore how everyone can access dance." To bring dance back to the community, she plans to stage performances in city parks this spring.
Choreographer Roza, who danced for ZUZI for about four seasons, created several works for Woven.
"She's a great choreographer," Robinson says. "We're really glad to have her back." Coincidentally, Robinson notes, Roza says that "weaving is everywhere" in her native Brazil.
One of Roza's pieces is an aerial dance co-choreographed and performed by Jordan Ruiz, who will dance high above the stage. Roza also choreographed the show's opening dance, "Woven Stories," performed by the entire cast of pro dancers, community dancers and kids. Among those weaving tales will be the tragedy of Arachne, a gifted weaver of Greek myth who bested the goddess Athena in a weaving contest. Her punishment? She was turned into a spider, and ever after remembered in the scientific name for spiders and scorpions.
Roza also contributed ballet piece, an unexpected treat in a program of mostly modern dance.
After leaving the troupe to get an MFA in dance at the UA, Roza began teaching at Pima and she's brought several of her students dancers back to ZUZI to perform in the show.
Musician Weyant—perhaps best known for coaxing music out of the border wall by playing it like a musical instrument—will play electric guitar during two dances. Both works, "Web of Light," a structured improv, and "She Who Unravels the Knot/Beds and Looms," were choreographed by Robinson.
"Web of Light" Robinson says, will have a shaft of light beaming down on the dark stage. And the soundscape for "She Who Unravels" will capture the rhythmic clacking sounds made by the shuttle of a Thai loom.
Robinson collaborated with Aja Squires to create "Sky Loom," an aerial piece for the ZUZI's youth dancers. Squires will dance in another aerial piece, "Silken Threads," joining three other dancers on hammocks swinging above the stage floor.
The ZUZI dancers are excited to performing in the newly renovated theater, Robinson says. A new organization called The Scoundrel and Scamp Theatre, operated by Elizabeth and Bryan Falcón, has started a new theater company and school in the building and has taken over management of its arts spaces. The change, Robinson says, is a relief.
"It takes the burden of us," she says. "Now we're just ZUZI Dance and School."
And after the "huge renovation" engineered by the Falcóns, patrons arriving for Woven will find a "theater that's state of the art."