In its third year since turning pro, Ballet Tucson is feeling confident enough to tackle a dance by one of the 20th century's choreographic greats.
Antony Tudor's 1971 "Continuo," a ballet for three couples, should be the highlight of the local company's Dance and Dessert concert this weekend.
"It's big, exciting news for us," says artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana. "We got a specific grant for preserving the work of American masters," with money coming both from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Arizona Commission on the Arts.
Tudor was British-born, but he came to New York in 1939 to help found American Ballet Theatre, and he composed many of his best-known works there, including his masterpiece, "The Leaves Are Fading." Since his career was primarily in the United States, the Ballet Tucson restaging of "Continuo" was eligible for the grant.
Ever since the choreographer's death in 1987, troupes wanting to dance his works must get permission from the Tudor Trust. The Tucson company was able to make its case in part because two former ABT stars, Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, are working with the company this season as balletmasters and coaches.
"Amanda and John have danced most of his other works," Cabana says. "The year before she retired (from ABT), Amanda danced his 'Pillar of Fire.'" The couple, who have frequently restaged Tudor works for other troupes, are taking charge of setting "Continuo" on the local dancers. Sally Bliss, head of the Tudor Trust and a former Tudor dancer, will fly out in the final stages of rehearsal "to put the stamp of approval" on the Ballet Tucson version.
Danced to Pachelbel's "Canon in D," the work is "a youthful ballet," Cabana says, and it's giving some of the troupe's youngest members a chance to try on a classic. Six of the troupe's paid apprentices, Celina Ginn, Megan Terry, Nancy Cole, Hadley Jalbert, Isaac Sharratt and Michael Dunsmore, will be in the double-cast work, along with Margaret Mullin, a "very advanced" high school senior who's a company trainee. Company members Aurora Frey, Stuart Lauer and Daniel Escudero are also in the roster of 12.
"This is a fabulous experience for them, to dance the piece and to be coached by Amanda and John."
"Continuo" may be a new venture, but Dance and Dessert has been going strong for 10 years. (Ballet Tucson has been in existence in various forms for more than 20 years.) The popular concert pairs a varied mix of dances--"We go all over the map in terms of style"--with a sampling of desserts donated by a host of local restaurants.
"The finale is dessert," Cabana promises. But before patrons belly up to tables full of chocolate mousses and crèmes brulées, they get a taste of everything from classic and contemporary ballet to performance art and social dances.
"Dancing Times," by Mia Hansen, a teacher at the Ballet Arts school and a former dancer with Up With People, is a medley of popular dances of the 20th century. A longtime audience favorite, it's a fast-paced dance that zips 24 dancers through the Charleston, the twist, salsa and swing. The troupe's Christmastime Drosselmeyer, Joseph McGrath, cavorts onstage as the emcee.
"Sleazeball Duet," by Sam Watson, a UA dance professor known for humorous and edgy work, is "about a greaseball guy and librarian-type woman," Cabana says. A brand-new dance, "it's short and funny. It borders on performance art."
Triple cast, "Sleazeball Duet" will pair Daniel Precup with Deanna Doncsecz, Joanne Jaglowski with César Rubio, and Jenna Johnson with Sharratt.
Watson gets even sillier with "Punctuations," a contemporary trio featuring Rubio as a period, Doncsecz as a question mark and Nadia Ali as an exclamation point.
Assistant artistic director Chieko Imada also has some fun, with "Bossa Nova Ville," a contemporary ballet for five set to '60s lounge music, a work Cabana calls "a lighthearted exploration of relationships."
Guest choreographer Mark Schneider, formerly company choreographer, debuts his "New Ravel Waltzes." A contemporary ballet, it "has Mark's trademark big movement," Cabana says. "It probably will become part of a larger work."
Its five dancers are Meredith Dulaney, Samantha Chang, Precup, Johnson and Jaglowski.
Jeffrey Graham Hughes, who took over as the troupe's executive director this season, reprises his "Pygmalion and Galatea." Previously set on the Ohio and Dayton ballets, the pas de deux is new for Ballet Tucson. Married principals Precup and Johnson dance the narrative work, inspired by an 1890 Jean-Léon Jérôme painting of the sculptor who falls in love with his own statue come to life.
Hughes is primarily handling management duties for the company, Cabana says, but he's a "hybrid. He wants to stay connected to the studio" and work with the dancers when time allows.
But if the Dance and Dessert menu offers up a variety of dance flavors, classic ballet is still the main entrée. Mullin solos in the famous Russian dance from the third act of Swan Lake, choreographed by Imada and Cabana.
"In the spring, we're doing a full-fledged Swan Lake," Cabana says. "This is a teaser." Set to a "pretty" passage of Tchaikovsky music, the solo is danced by a potential bride for Prince Siegfried. Despite bravura dancing, she fails to win his heart, since he's already captivated by Odette/Odile.
Cabana's "Classical Symphony" brings a crowd of 24 dancers onto the stage--full company members, apprentices, trainees--in a "virtuoso ballet piece." Set to Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1, it's meant to show off the entire troupe's technical skills and showmanship.
"We're in the middle of our third season," Cabana says proudly, "and we're rolling along."