Each morning on his way to work, new UA dance prof David Berkey drives out of the Tucson Mountains at Starr Pass, takes a look at the surrounding landscape, and says to himself, "Oh, mountains!"
Fresh from 19 years of teaching modern dance in the Midwestern flatlands at the University of Iowa, Berkey says, "I'm still adapting. It's beautiful to see mountains, and I like the weather much better now" than in the summer, when he first arrived. The Midwest is prettier than outsiders like to acknowledge, the Illinois native insists, noting that UI is set along a river in rolling farmland. And during his years in Iowa, he formed David Berkey Dance, and in 2000 had the troupe perform his work at the Cunningham Studio in New York.
Still, he was ready for a change. He has found the UA student dancers, who must audition into the program, "more competitive technically" than at Iowa, and the faculty "friendly and accommodating."
Berkey joined his new colleagues in August, filling a modern-dance gap open since John Wilson's retirement in 2001. The UA dance division prides itself on its triple focus on ballet, jazz and modern, but until his arrival "they were really short on modern," he says. Only Amy Ernst had been teaching modern full-time, with Sam Watson dividing his time between jazz and modern.
The new teacher has been in the classroom all fall, but the community will get its first look at his choreography at this weekend's In the Season concerts in the new Stevie Eller Dance Theatre. (UApresents also stages a dance concert on Saturday, at Centennial Hall; see below.) Though the student dancers of the UA Dance Ensemble performed in their new theater at an opening gala and later in a special performance for the Arizona regents, this marks their first public concert in the glittering new space. They will dance three separate programs, the first Thursday and Friday; the second, Saturday afternoon and evening; and the third, Sunday afternoon and evening.
Berkey's new piece, "From the Garden," will highlight the Thursday and Friday evening concerts. Set to music by Rachmaninov, Rossini and Khachaturian, the work in three movements is 17 minutes long and deploys a dozen dancers, who will be dressed monochromatically in black, charcoal and gray. The dance "is not a true narrative," Berkey says, but it loosely alludes to the goings-on in the Garden of Eden.
The first movement is a trio, "almost Adam and Eve and the Serpent, after the apple is bitten." The second is an "abstract romantic duet" danced by graduating senior Claire Hancock and freshman Geoffrey Gonzalez. The third section is "more madcap, about the trials and tribulations of humans."
"I'm hoping the piece is kind of fun," Berkey adds. "It's very animated, with a lot of movement."
Now 52, Berkey has choreographed some 75 dance compositions for university troupes and professional companies, including Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, New York's American Ballet Theater Studio Company and China's Beijing Dance Academy. Born in Chicago and raised in Wisconsin, he trained as a dancer at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and at UCLA, and danced professionally with Staatstheater Kassel Ballet in Germany and the Eugene Ballet. He's also taught at the universities of Oregon, Hawaii, Western Washington and Wisconsin, Stevens Point.
Other faculty works on the Thursday-Friday program include Susan Quinn's "Sabor a M'," her piece for eight women danced to Latin-tinged jazz. The Saturday shows feature "This Is Not an Apple," a new work by artist-in-residence James Clouser. A fantasy inspired by a surrealist Magritte painting, "Apple" is set to the music of Satie, played live by Suzanne Knosp. César Rubio, performing guest artist-in-residence and a dancer with Ballet Tucson, debuts a contemporary ballet, "Voyage," set to music by Philip Glass.
The Sunday programs showcase student works, including "Ffloid," a tap solo by Julie Pentz; "The Dancing Santa," a comic Claus-y work by Amanda Lochmiller; "Love You Forever," a mother-daughter duet by Kari Schroeder; and "Relic," a duet by UA grad Katie McIver, now a choreographer in Denver. Loree Kenagy closes the shows with a gigantic work for 21 dancers. "Beatlemania" is full of Beatles favorites, including a "Twist and Shout" mysteriously billed as wholly new.
AT THE OTHER end of campus, Chinese choreographer Shen Wei brings his modern dance company to Centennial Hall for one performance only, on Saturday night. His eponymous Shen Wei Dance Arts undertakes two pieces, the European dance staple Rite of Spring and Folding, influenced by Chinese visual arts.
Shen Wei's version of Rite of Spring will be danced to the familiar Stravinsky score, rendered not by a full orchestra but by two pianos. Last year, the New York Times' Anna Kisselgoff wrote, "Shen Wei strips Stravinsky's Rite of Spring to the bone. The visual and emotional impact is overwhelming." The work's 12 dancers perform in a set austerely colored in black, white and gray, dancing movements that Wei has gleaned both from traditional Chinese opera dance--which to western eyes looks acrobatic--and contemporary styles of dance. (Wei takes credit for helping form China's first modern troupe, Guangdong Modern Dance Company, but he now lives in New York, worldwide capital of contemporary dance.)
Also a painter and sculptor, Wei based Folding on art imagery from his native country. One critic likened the piece to a "danced installation of sculptures." Wei was not available for an interview during Thanksgiving week, but he'll speak about his work at the free presentation Unlocking the Creative Process at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, in the UA Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering auditorium, northeast corner of Speedway and Mountain.