The first dance Thom Lewis ever saw was a soft-shoe routine in a Laurel and Hardy movie called Way Out West.
Two years ago, Lewis saw the dance again, live in Tucson. He and Lee Anne Hartley, with whom he co-founded FUNHOUSE Movement Theater, went to a retirement party for longtime UA dance prof John Wilson, and two of Wilson's students reprised the Laurel and Hardy routine.
That settled it: Hartley and Lewis decided to remake the dance themselves.
"We re-created it from the video," Lewis said. "Lee Anne is Stan Laurel, of course. She looks longer than I do. Oliver Hardy was the truculent one. I'm going to pad it up a little to play him."
The Laurel and Hardy dance, a "bagatelle, a trifle," as Lewis calls it, is just one of 14 short pieces scheduled to be performed this Saturday night at the fifth annual Improv in the Baked Apple. Produced each summer by Orts Theatre of Dance in the cavernous Orts studio, the Improv show is an unpredictable kaleidoscope of dance, drumming, song, spoken word and video by assorted Tucson artists, from poet Charles Alexander to dancer Claire Hancock. Staged each year in June, the hottest month, the Baked Apple show this year falls on the eve of the summer solstice.
If the heavenly bodies that create the longest day move predictably in their stately course across the sky, the show's lively lineup is subject to change at the last minute, said Annie Bunker, artistic director of Orts.
"I can only tell you the rundown as I know it right now," she said, laughing. "With improv, it changes even from when you rehearse."
This year's edition boasts a number of innovations, she said. A collaboration between Odaiko, the drumming duo of Karen Falkenstrom and Rome Hammer, and Orts dancers Katie Rutterer, Charles Thompson and Bunker, is a first. The artists have no title for their piece as yet, but they do have a plan.
"They're pretty lively when they drum," Bunker explained. "We're going to moving in a Zen-like way, the opposite of them."
Hancock, a UA dance student who performed in the Orts Interiors show last winter, is doing her first improv with Bunker. The pair is working on a modern dance duet.
"We'll use the music of Vas," Bunker said. "In the score we're working on, we're the opposite of each other, and we merge into one."
Another newcomer to the Baked Apple show is Ojeya Cruz Banks, "a beautiful African dancer" who spent a year training in Kenya. Banks will perform with percussionist Martin Klabundy.
Some of the pieces offer glimpses of works-in-progress. Independent choreographer Eva Tessler will dance "A Letter to Manuela," a fragment of a longer autobiographical piece planned for the Latina Dance Project show Nov. 14-15 at Pima College. Tessler will do it as a solo in November, but in this incarnation, she dances with a young Orts student, Kiona Brown, who portrays Tessler's grandmother.
Tessler's paternal grandmother was either black or mixed race, "but no one talked about it," said Tessler, who grew up in Mexico City. "She died young, before I was born. This is a piece based on that." She and Brown will dance to the taped music of South African singer Miriam Makeba.
Tucson singer Cantrell Maryott Driver also will work with a young artist--or maybe not. The plan, Maryott Driver said, is for Wren Bunker Koesters, the young son of Annie Bunker and video artist Chuck Koesters, to play the cello while she "improvises melodies on top of it. But he may bail. I may be left having to do something else." Recently returned home from Europe, where she recorded her voice "in the cavernous spaces of France and Spain," Maryott Driver intends, accompanied or not, to "sing the song of the room," the large Orts studio where the show will take place.
Young Bunker Koesters has another role scheduled, in a fragment of an earlier piece choreographed by his mom. The original work combined dance with the visual art of Ellen McMahon, telling a story about motherhood. (McMahon's art version of the same mother-daughter tale won a place in the competitive Arizona Biennial, now on view at the Tucson Museum of Art.) Wren will dance with his mother and Batyah Freedman, to a backdrop of video and music.
Dad Chuck Koesters will give a preview of a video of recent trip to Hawaii that may well inspire a dance in the future--if not next week, said Bunker. And one or more pieces will feature the "aerial apparatus"--or trapezes--that are Orts' trademark.
Actor Paul Fisher will do a theatrical monologue, and poet Charles Alexander will merge a reading from his work with music by Koesters on dulcimer and movement by Bunker on the dance floor.
"It will be a loose-knit improvisation," Bunker said. "We'll play off each other. ... The three of us have really good energy."