Last fall, Frances Smith Cohen had a big modern-dance concert planned. Halloween at the Herberger, it was called.
Several Phoenix dance troupes were lined up to do a piece or two each. Cohen had one older dance ready--"Dracula"--for her Center Dance Ensemble dancers to perform at the Herberger, their Phoenix home. But just weeks before rehearsals for the Halloween show were to begin, Cohen didn't have a second dance.
"I needed a piece!" Cohen recalled with a laugh in a local café on a rainy afternoon late in January. The veteran choreographer and dancer was back in Tucson, where she lived almost 40 years, to promote her concert scheduled this weekend at the UA's Stevie Eller Dance Theatre. "I had no clue what I would do."
Luckily, a quick trip to New York solved the creative crisis. Arriving late at night, the only place Cohen and her husband could get a bite to eat was at a bar around the corner from their son's place. Now in their 70s, the Cohens inadvertently landed in alien turf: a 21st-century bar scene.
"It was so raucous, with pounding rock music," Cohen recalled wonderingly. "There were all these 20- and 30-year-old beautiful girls in little black dresses and guys in tight jeans and testosterone. The body language was amazing; the girls were very aware of themselves. The guys were drifting from girl to girl. They kept shifting. I said to myself, 'This is my dance.'"
The resulting "Dance of the Spider Women" practically made itself, she said. "I love that, when the dance announces itself." Cohen, a fan of the book and play of the almost-same name, pushed reality a bit in the dance: The slinky bar sophisticates actually wrap their male targets in spider webbing. And she changed her usual modern movement.
"It's not as Graham-based, which is my background," she said. "There's a lot of jazz movement--but my jazz is like nobody else's." And the music--a contemporary combo of Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel and New Found Glory, all suggested by her young dancers--"gave me lot of moves."
Spooky and sexy, "Spider Women" was a hit at the Phoenix Halloween show. (Ken LaFave, the Arizona Republic dance critic, kidded in his review that Cohen "should get out more. It can lead to good work.") This weekend, it opens Cohen's welcome-home concert at the UA, which will close with another acclaimed Cohen work, "The Attic," a 30-minute mixed-media piece from 1993, based on Anne Frank's diaries.
Jory Hancock, the UA's current dance division head, had been talking with Cohen for some years about coming home to do a concert. Cohen helped found the university's dance division back in the 1970s, and served as chair for five years. Before that, she was dance director at Tucson's old midtown Jewish Community Center and created the Kadimah Dancers, the state's first touring modern troupe. The concert plans finally gelled when the university got its new dance theater.
"She's done a lot for dance in Arizona," Hancock said by telephone. "She's a bundle of energy. I wanted to invite her for our inaugural season in the new theater."
Hancock saw "The Attic" last year in Phoenix. A work that combines Nazi-era film, spoken extracts from Frank's diary and modern-dance movement, "It's a beautiful piece," he said, "a story work about not such an easy subject."
Geoff Gonzalez, a "nice dancer" who is a freshman at the UA, joins the Center Dance Ensemble for "The Attic," taking the part of Mr. Van Daan, Hancock said. Otherwise, Cohen's respected Center Dance performers dance her two works, while the UA's student dancers give the three works in the middle, choreographed by current faculty.
UA professor Sam Watson set his comedic "Hi-Jinx" on the student dancers for the first time; originally created for Gus Giordano Jazz Dance Chicago, his jazzy dance has been seen both in the United States and abroad. Nina Janik, another professor, presents a contemporary ballet, "Emerald Emergence," which helped win her choreography grants from both the Tucson Pima Arts Council and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Artist-in-residence César Rubio, who also dances with Ballet Tucson, choreographed "Color Melancholia," a tango-tinged trio, danced to Yo-Yo Ma's rendition of an Astor Piazzolla tango piece.
Cohen, who's been living in Phoenix since the mid-'80s, came to Tucson with her family as a little girl in 1936. She studied dance here as a child, with a Miss Cusick and a Miss Gertrude Mary Schwab, and in summer programs in Los Angeles, working with Madame Njinska, sister of the famed dancer. When she arrived at the UA, dance classes were still under the auspices of the PE program. She dove right in, but when a choreographer from Bennington College, then a hotbed of modern dance, came in to stage an outdoor extravaganza, she was furious that the local dancers were to be excluded from starring roles.
"I went to Peter Marroney, the director, and complained. I told him, 'It's not fair that we can't audition for the lead,'" she said.
She got the rules changed, got the lead--and won a full dance scholarship to Bennington. Her departure for Vermont was just the beginning of a long career planting dance wherever she went. After she married Tucsonan Marvin Cohen, the two lived for a time in Germany, where she started a dance school. Back in Tucson, Cohen began her years of work at the JCC and then at the UA. They left town only when Marvin, a lawyer, was tapped for a position in the Carter Administration.
In Washington, "I started a new company; I worked at Wolf Trap; I taught at the University of Maryland; I became head of the opera department at GW (George Washington University)." But when the couple tired of Washington, and longed for home, the Tucson dance scene was thriving on its own.
"Everybody had taken my place in Tucson," she said cheerfully. "We decided Phoenix needed us."
She considered retiring, for "about two minutes," then leapt at an offer to form a resident company at the Herberger. For years, she said, she did it all herself, fund raising, writing grants, teaching and choreographing. Nowadays, with a managing director ("She wrapped a spider web around me," director Gary Bacal said), she can concentrate on her art.
"I'm freed up now!" she declared. "My work has gotten so much better." And inspirations, like the loud New York bar, just keeping rolling in. "It happens all the time. I have to be open all the time. I've never stopped a dance once it's announced itself. You have to get through the bad ones to get to the good ones.
"At this age, I just get good ones. But I'm waiting for the great one."