When I called dancer-choreographer Thom Lewis last weekend to arrange an interview for this paper, he was organizing some dance chaos (also known as teaching) at a local elementary school, as he is wont to do. The students were gathering for a rehearsal, and the noise level was more than a few decibels too high for Lewis to hear my voice in his cell phone.
To encourage his charges to quiet down, Lewis told them the President of the United States was on the line.
In reverence, they settled down quickly, although a little girl did call his bluff. Her voice carried through the line: "Can I talk to him?"
To which Lewis responded, "No, I am afraid Mr. Bush is very busy and doesn't have time."
That sort of irreverent humor--perhaps best described as a gentle sarcasm--infuses most of Lewis' dances created for Funhouse Movement Theater, the 3-year-old modern-dance company he leads with fellow dance and choreographer Lee Anne Hartley.
Indeed, when Funhouse takes the stage this weekend at the DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center in Reid Park, Lewis and Hartley will open the show with a loving and faithful re-creation of a soft-shoe by Laurel and Hardy.
The performance also will include Hartley's "The Laws of Physics in Everyday Life" and Lewis' award-winning "Pup Fiction." Also marking it as significant, the event will be the first dance concert on the DeMeester stage (sometimes still known as the Reid Park band shell to old-timers) in two years.
Modern dance was a regular presence in the park for a good decade before budget cuts forced the city's Parks and Recreation department to discontinue the free series. Until 2001, the DeMeester was the venue for an Orts Theatre of Dance concert each spring and a fall performance by Tenth Street Danceworks, Lewis' former company.
"But Jim Velde at the Parks and Recreation department is being very helpful," Lewis said. "They are actually co-producing the concert, and we're coming up with some of our own money."
The concert also is partially supported by the Tucson/Pima Arts Council, the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, Arizona Community Foundation and the Joseph and Mary Cacioppo Foundation.
For donations, Lewis can thank Hartley, whom he calls a fund-raising genius.
"Lee Anne Hartley is amazing at finding contributions and an amazing grant writer. I mean, I can write a grant like the best of them, but there is really no need with Lee Anne around. Hartley gives good grants."
Wisely, Funhouse is also inviting potential sponsors to this weekend's concerts in hope of drumming up some more financial support, he said. "Then we can ask them, 'Wouldn't you like your company to support something like this?'"
Something like a concert filled with whimsical, albeit substantial, modern dance that has appeal to adults and children. Primary among Lewis' concerns is reaching out to families and providing them with an affordable performing arts experience.
"For a young family with kids, it's getting darn expensive to take your kids out to the movies, and deadly to take them to dance or theater productions. And I have come to realize that kids enjoy live performances if they are properly staged with the young eye and attention span in mind."
The concert also includes young dancers. "We have 20 performers in all in this show, some as young as the third grade, and up through really old, which in this case, means age 53."
In Lewis' "Pup Fiction," an odyssey through the life of a dog that runs away, the "pound puppies" are traditional kids' roles, he said.
"And in this version, the pound puppies are all new, because the original pound puppies are getting too old. One of our original pound puppies now has graduated to an adult role. That's Max Foster, and he plays an adult dog, Bones."
The music in "Pup Fiction," of course, is rockin'. There's everything from George Thorogood and the Destroyers' "Bad to the Bone" to the Blues Brothers version of "Jailhouse Rock," as well as Shriekback, some borrowed video-game music and some of the West Side Story overture.
Hartley's "The Laws of Physics in Everyday Life," on the other hand, includes "Satisfaction" by the Rolling Stones, "I Heard It Through Grapevine," some Sarah McLachlan and "Taking Care of Business" by Bachman Turner Overdrive.
In the course of reviewing "Physics" for the Arizona Daily Star several years ago, I wrote that it is a "clever work (that) illustrates, plainly and artfully, concepts such as momentum, friction, inertia, the expanding universe, the theory of relativity and the uncertainty principle."
In the natural grass amphitheater at DeMeester, audience members are invited to bring blankets, picnic dinners and their entire clans.
Although attendance by dogs is discouraged, there will be a real one on stage in "Pup Fiction." Hannah will play the role of Buster.
One might think working a dog into modern-dance choreography could be fraught with, ahem, spontaneous moments. No worry, according to Lewis. "She is a national champion utility-trained dog in the Kennel Club's Dog Hall of Fame. Well, the dog's pretty right on. She runs out and gets rewarded with a treat and hits her mark every time."
Does he ever think of trying that with human dancers?
"Well, we sort of do that, because when the show is over, we reward them with a treat in the form of a check--not a very big one, mind you."
It's more like an honorarium. "And the honor is really all ours to be working with these performers. They are smart and creatively resourceful. If they have problems in the piece, they fix their own problems. Each one has character they add to their roles."
A special treat also awaits those who attend the concert, Lewis added.
"It's always good to do something scary in a performance, so I play the accordion in this performance. It's a little button job like they play in Celtic music." This occurs during "Pup Fiction."
"I just like the idea of a dog playing an accordion. When I was a kid I asked me father for a trumpet, so of course he gave me an accordion. So this is my tribute of sorts to him."