Marquez Johnson got a late start as a dancer. Really late.
"I started in my senior year of high school," says Johnson, who debuts a piece of his own choreography at the Artifact Dance Project Summer Intensive Showcase this weekend.
Now a pro dancer with Artifact and a fresh new MFA from the UA School of Dance, Johnson was a high school athlete whose after-school hours were filled with basketball and track and field.
"I always wanted to dance but I couldn't find time in my schedule," he says.
Once he tried out the arabesques and pliés in dance class at Cortez High School in Phoenix, though, he never looked back. Buoyed by the fitness he'd gotten from jumping for the b-ball and thundering around the track, he aced the audition at the UA School of Dance. He was accepted as a dance major, class of 2009.
"They thought I had a lot of potential," he says. "I was behind in my training. I needed technique. But I did really well with catching up."
Johnson became a dance star at the UA, and after earning a BFA he taught dance for five years at Flowing Wells High School, where he directed a dance team all the way to a national competition. He signed up as a dancer with the brand-new Artifact Dance Project the year he graduated from college.
"Marquez is a beautiful performer," says Claire Hancock, who founded Artifact with co-artistic director Ashley Bowman in the fall of 2009. "He's been with us almost since the beginning."
Johnson went on hiatus from Artifact—and left his Flowing Wells job—when he enrolled in grad school. Now, with his master's diploma in hand, he's lined up to dance the part of the "evil king" in Artifact's Judith production scheduled for October ("I get my head cut off," he says) and this summer he's teaching in the company's three-week dance school.
"He's a wonderful teacher," Hancock enthuses. "And he's gotten even better after doing his MFA. We're so glad to have him."
The Showcase, a rare summer dance concert in Tucson, will feature all of the 23 students who are participating in the summer intensive. The dancers, teens to adults, will take on three brand-new works of choreography, performing in the company's rough-hewn warehouse studio.
Each piece has been composed by one of the intensive's teachers—Johnson, Hancock and Joshua Blake Carter—all of them UA dance grads.
The dances will be performed in the round, with the audience sitting in chairs against the walls. The choreographers must grapple with moving 23 bodies around the relatively narrow studio, just steps away from audience members' toes.
"It's a challenge," Johnson says cheerfully, but not an insurmountable one. He begins his work with having "everyone doing the exact same movement at the same time."
Johnson, who's teaching the students contemporary dance, has set the piece to a contemporary composition, Philip Glass's "Violin Concerto #1." (Taking a summer break from the company tradition of using live music, all music in the concert will be pre-recorded.)
"I'm trying to deploy a lot of different movements in the dance," says Johnson, in keeping with the Artifact aesthetic. "It has classical movement qualities" drawn from ballet, "and it has some jazz elements."
The work is inspired by the adage, "all good things must come to an end," he explains. "It's not sad or dark. It's about when you have to leave something like the intensive, where you've learned a lot."
Carter, who also taught in the intensive last summer, has been a pro dancer with the renowned Giordano Dance Chicago jazz troupe since his graduation from UA Dance eight years ago. But he's decided the most recent season is his last as a dancer.
"My body is wearing out," the 30-year-old says, only partly joking. "I've aged in dog years. I'm ready to do more choreography."
Carter will continue to direct and choreograph for the junior company Giordano II, while devoting himself more fully to creating his own dances. Carter has choreographed for companies in Colorado and Missouri; recent credits include an Elton John show in Chicago and a 30-minute piece for Nomi, a Windy City dance troupe.
He's been teaching jazz to the summer Artifact students, and his Showcase piece, with the working titled "How to Miss Something You Never Had," will riff on jazz dancing. It opens with a Nina Simone recording of "Little Liza Jane," a song "that lends itself to classic jazz movement," he says. "But the piece will deconstruct the elements of classic jazz."
Part II will feature electronic music by the band Mount Kimbie, and the group dance will end in a duet, performed to Mel Tormé's "In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down)."
Hancock is teaching ballet to the students, and her composition, titled "Aeon"—the antique spelling of the word "eon"—not surprisingly is "balletically based then pushes off into contemporary," she says. It's set to three recordings by Sybarite5, a string quartet that does remixed Radiohead songs.
Paralleling the life cycle, from youth, to life's prime, to life's slow end, it begins with a "challenging rhythm" for all 23 dancers, then turns toward a double duet of four dancers. Finally it moves toward stillness.
For the final section, Hancock says, the dancers have created their own "little solos, a gestural response to words. We'll see what happens."