This weekend, Act II of the ballet classic Giselle will be performed in Tucson for the second time this season.
Ballet Tucson danced the 1841 work at Halloween, and its ethereal Wilis—brides who died before their wedding day—were a perfect fit for the ghostly season.
Tucson Regional Ballet is taking a different tack, performing the traditional ballet as the opener to its Spring Spectacular concert. Its chorus of 12 young would-be brides are also dressed in white, but now the color suggests flowery springtime.
"We have a white set and romantic tutus," says company director Linda Walker. "It's exquisite. I love this ballet. It's so soft and romantic."
The concert begins with Giselle's tragic tale of eternal love and ends with The Princess and the Pea, a comical counterpoint in which true love has a more playful meaning: If you can't sleep on a pea, you must be the right bride for a prince. In between, three short contemporary dances, including one by guest choreographer Claire Hancock, bring the old art form of ballet up to date.
Tucson Regional, known for its Southwest Nutcracker each Christmas, typically presents a story concert in the spring, Walker says. By juxtaposing a classical ballet with a fun fairy tale, the company wants to "offer something for everybody in the family."
Giselle is a Germanic tale, inspired by a story written by Heinrich Heine. When Giselle learns that her beloved, Count Albrecht, has lied about his identity and is engaged to someone else, she dances herself into an early grave. In Act II, the regretful Albrecht pursues Giselle to the afterlife, where she saves him from being stomped to death by the vengeful chorus of Wilis.
The otherworldly Act II is a favorite of ballet companies worldwide. Both Tucson Regional Ballet and Ballet Tucson were able to enhance their productions with some expert advice by American Ballet Theatre alums. Amanda McKerrow, who danced the part with Mikhail Baryshnikov, staged the Ballet Tucson production. Alaine Haubert, who danced with the Joffrey as well as ABT, oversaw Tucson Regional's.
"She came in as artistic advisor and fine-tuned it," Walker says, after company artistic director Deborah Kenner staged and rehearsed the piece.
Tucson Regional has also enlisted a glittering guest star to dance Albrecht. The troupe primarily consists of advanced students from its studio, but Roman Zavarov, a native of Kazakhstan who trained at Bolshoi Ballet, will dance the part of the fickle lover. Now a dancer with Ballet Arizona in Phoenix, Zavarov recently danced the part of the more faithful Prince Desire in The Sleeping Beauty. He was the subject of a glowing profile in the February issue of Dance Magazine.
The plum role of Giselle goes to Lauren Flower, a Sabino High School freshman who has studied several summers at ABT and has just won a scholarship to Pacific Northwest Ballet for this upcoming summer, Walker says.
The 40-minute Act II has 18 dancers, including Cassandra Akpan and Paetia Mechler alternating as Myrtha, queen of the Wilis. Hseth Burch is Hilarion, the gameskeeper who alerts Giselle to Albrecht's perfidy and is stomped to death by the Wilis for his pains.
Burch has a happier role in The Princess and the Pea, an original ballet choreographed by former company artistic director Gary McKenzie a half-dozen years ago. A dance adaptation of the familiar Hans Christian Andersen tale, "The audience loved it so much, we're doing it again," Walker says.
Burch plays the prince searching for true love.
"It's a fun part," Walker says. A double major in dance and chemical engineering at the UA, Burch as the prince is faced with a quartet of young women hoping to become his wife by claiming to be true princesses.
"The young prince is well looked after by his mother," Walker says, and she's able to see through them all. Princess Peril, all in red, is so clumsy that she falls down—clearly not a real princess; another, dressed in pink lace, is "soupy sweet. They're seductive and funny."
Later, an unlikely young woman arrives at the castle on a rainy night.
"She comes in a storm in a wet dress. She's a mess, but the prince takes a liking to her."
The vigilant queen tests the young woman's royal credentials by making her sleep on a bed laden with featherbeds and quilts, on top of a single hard pea. A true princess, so it seems, couldn't possibly sleep with that pea layers below her tender body. Holly Bentkowski and Nicole Surran alternate the part of the princess with the aching back.
It took five men to put together the giant bed, Walker says. At 8 feet high, it's so big that it has to be wheeled onto the stage, and the putative princess has to climb up a ladder to get to the top.
The set is a fairy-tale castle "in Europe some place," and the costumes for the 35 minute piece's 25 dancers are brilliantly colored—the court jester in purple and black, the fake princesses in pink, lavender, turquoise and red.
Among the short pieces, guest choreographer Hancock contributes "Samaya," a "very contemporary ballet" for 10 girls, all of them advanced dancers, Walker says. Hancock is co-founder of Tucson's Art.if.Act, a new dance troupe that emphasizes live music. "Samaya" is set to alluring music by Israeli composer Yuval Ron. The music in this case is taped, but it "just flows. It's so beautiful. The girls love dancing to it."
Seventeen-year-old dancer Akpan turns choreographer with "Tracing the Tides," an ambitious group work. And Walker has staged "Hungarian Peanuts," a work set to Slavic music and choreographed by Sheri Giller, another former artistic director for the company.
The piece gives a glimpse of Tucson Regional's future, Walker says: "I staged it on our new young sprouts."