Question: What's the safest way to dance in a river that has long since dried up and died?
Answer: In sneakers with thick soles and tight laces.
The adventurous dancers of NEW ARTiculations Dance Theatre will tie on their tennies this Sunday morning when they venture into the dry riverbed of the Santa Cruz to dance FLOW, a long-awaited concert about the loss of Tucson's river.
"It's a tough environment to dance in," acknowledges Kimi Eisele, the troupe's artistic co-director. Besides the occasional archaeological artifact—a stray piece of Hohokam pottery, perhaps—the riverbed is littered with mattresses, condoms, "big chunks of glass" and other forms of trash, including an abandoned suitcase that made its way into one of the dances.
The dancers will first perform up on the riverbanks—at the Santa Cruz River Park, on the west side of the river between Speedway Boulevard and St. Mary's Road—and then down in the sandy riverbed itself. Performing on Earth Day, they'll dance works about our profligate use of water today, and about the forces that killed the river several generations ago.
"There's a sense of loss that the river was destroyed," Eisele says, "and that it won't come back. It's so heartbreaking."
The Santa Cruz once flowed much of the year. Mesquite bosques and cottonwoods lined its banks, and abundant wildlife—from turkeys to ducks—used to splash in its water. Wood-cutting, cattle-grazing and a swelling population, among other culprits, helped kill it, and now it flows only when the monsoon rains come tumbling down.
One piece in the concert will conjure up memories of the living river. The Santa Cruz has been dead so long that the troupe had trouble finding living Tucsonans who remember it. They finally located one woman, Menlo Park community leader Lillian Lopez-Grant, who has lived all of her years along its banks.
She talked to Eisele and dancer Valerie Selden about her childhood memories from the 1940s and '50s.
"She used to picnic along the river," Eisele says. "Girls were not allowed to swim, but boys were." Even so, Lopez-Grant "associated the river with a feeling of freedom."
Selden and dancer April Douet choreographed a three-minute work to be danced in the riverbed to "audio of Lillian speaking," Eisele says. "It's about one life connected to the river."
The concert will begin in a grassy area on the riverbank, where chairs will be set up for the audience. The first dance, "Drink, Brush, Wash, Flush," is a humorous look at our private water rituals. Sunday-morning bicyclists may be surprised to see one of its props—a real toilet—sitting out in the open.
The work's suite of four solos examines how we use water every day. Tammy Rosen dances alongside the toilet, while Douet cavorts with drinking water in a plastic pitcher. (A glass one bit the dust in rehearsal.) New company member Kate Blair partners with a toothbrush, and guest artist Greg Colburn struts with a sink. The recorded music—managed by Flam Chen's Paul Weir in a solar trailer—features two original compositions, by Vicki Brown and David Sudak.
Rosen reprises "Bottled," a humorous look at our overuse of plastic water bottles. First seen last spring in Watershed, a concert at Pima Community College that served as a prelude to FLOW, the five-dancer work has dancing fairies taking the over-consuming humans to task.
Co-artistic director Katie Rutterer also takes a piece from last year out for another sail. In "Where There Is No Water," five dancers in old-fashioned bathing suits and swimming caps turn up "ready for a day in the river, but there is no water," Eisele notes. Erika Farkvam, Corinne Hobson, Moriah Mason, Selden and Eisele are the disappointed swimmers.
During the two-year run of the FLOW project, the NEW ART dancers taught dance and environmental education at Borton Magnet School, and at four after-school programs run by Pima County Parks and Recreation at community centers in Drexel, Littletown, Catalina and Picture Rocks. In the final dances on the riverbank, the kids will slither through some watery dance steps, including one piece danced to "Sing Back the River," a song recorded by Petey Mesquitey.
After an intermission, the NEW ART dancers will metaphorically bring water back to the riverbed. The procession will be led by Karen Falkenstrom and Rome Hamner of Odaiko Sonora, who will play a booming Japanese drum and conch shell to herald the water's return. The audience will watch from the riverbank, safely behind a railing, as the dancers move upstream from the south, following the direction that the Santa Cruz once flowed.
The dancers will be wearing sturdy sneakers and red dresses designed by Nadia Hagen of Flam Chen—the bright color is meant to make them stand out in the big spaces of the riverbed. Eisele and Rutterer will direct the dancers in site-specific pieces as they move up the river. They've been instructed to imagine the "way water moves when it flows here, but also to consider all the pieces of the past that have been brought to this particular place over time," Eisele says.
Besides the Lopez-Grant oral-history piece, there will be the suitcase solo, in which Mason will dance with the luggage left behind long ago.
Another dance is a tribute to La Llorona, the weeping woman of border folklore who grieves for her drowned children.
In Tucson, the story of the lost children always gets mixed up with the lost river, Eisele says. NEW ART dances it to a "beautiful piece of music" by a Mexican a cappella group called Muna Zul. Their La Llorona song "is about loss" and, by extension, it "mourns the loss of the river."
Odaiko Sonora moves from the sadness of the La Llorona dance to jubilation, pounding out the tune "Nagare," the Japanese word for "flow." In this high-energy piece, the "river will leave," Eisele says, a tragedy enacted by the dancers moving away. "The drums will finish up, an echo of the past."
The location in a riverbed isn't the only unusual thing about FLOW. The 10 a.m. start time may well be unprecedented in dance. Finances and red tape prevented the troupe from installing lights to dance at night, Eisele says. Sunset was ruled out, because at that time of day, the "light is piercing." So the troupe decided on the relative cool of the morning, and the dancers have taken pains to make the riverbank concert a fun outing for a sunny day.
Kiddie activities and a refreshment booth may lure in families out for a Sunday stroll; the dancers' friends have said they plan to bike over.
NEW ART had to wade through a sea of bureaucracy to even get permission for the dance. The wash, Eisele says, is in the bailiwick of the city of Tucson, and the riverside park belongs to Pima County. But after two years of studying and dancing the river, Eisele says, the troupe is delighted that, artistically speaking at least, "the river is flowing again."