At 12:25 pm on a Sunday afternoon the foyer of the Ballet Tucson rehearsal studio is buzzing. About fifty supporters, dancers, and aspiring ballet students chat enthusiastically about the upcoming performances scheduled for March and April. Thomas Gilliam, the managing director, pours wine into tall glasses; I slowly walk the hallways admiring framed posters—mementos of dance seasons long gone.
As I sipped my Chardonnay, Ballet Tucson’s President of the Board of Directors, Cynthia Hansen, stood up to deliver a warm welcome, followed by a sobering message: “It’s a difficult time to maintain operations for a non profit. The Tucson Pima Arts Council funding budget has been cut, meaning funds that were allocated to Ballet Tucson will not be forthcoming.” (David Hoyt Johnson, the Deputy Director of TPAC told me that our city manager has recommended a 60% cut in arts awards for next year; more on that matter in a future column). The deficit has to be made up somehow, and Ms. Hansen thanked some of Ballet Tucson’s sponsors, including Long Realty and McDonalds, and notably a significant advertising package donated by Clear Channel Communications.
An uncertain economy and dwindling grants paint an unpleasantly familiar picture in our home city: Artists, performers and educators are struggling to continue doing what they love most. But Ballet Tucson remains determined and courageously optimistic. Next year will be their 25th anniversary season and as Ms. Hansen noted: “Public and private funding is shrinking, but despite these challenges Ballet Tucson is forging ahead. Now more than ever, our partnerships within the community will continue to be creative and innovative.”
To survive in challenging economic times, theatre, dance, and arts groups need to be innovative, and survival often requires a small army of unpaid volunteers together with resourceful staff members who are willing to wear multiple hats. The foyer in which we were sitting, “Our humble little home,” as Mr. Gilliam described it, “is also our costume shop. We have three incredible volunteer seamstresses.” And as an example he told how June Mullin doubles as office manager and also designs and builds masks used in performance by the dancers.
My parents were ballet enthusiasts and—growing up in London—I several times had the good fortune to see the Royal Ballet Company in action. But I have to admit that my own knowledge of the most graceful of the performing arts is little more than that of a novice. However, I happen to have a personal interest in Ballet Tucson: My friend Libby Egleson is in her first season with the company and—eager to learn about her work as she has learned about mine—I had the happy opportunity to represent TucsonCitizen.com at an invitation-only open rehearsal and lunch. Held annually, the event serves as a thank you to Ballet Tucson’s sponsors and subscribers.
That particular Sunday, the company was focused on rehearsing for their annual Dance & Dessert performance. While Ballet Tucson also performs classical crowd pleasers such as “The Nutcracker” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the Dance & Dessert presentation is something special. “It is the one time in the year when we get to showcase the versatility of our Ballet Tucson dancers,” notes Founding Artistic Director Mary Beth Cabana.
As the spectators divided into two groups, June came up to me, winked discreetly and whispered: “You want to be in Studio B,” as that was where Libby and her colleagues would be rehearsing “Ritmos de la Noche” (Rhythms of the Night), a modern ballet in three movements, under the direction of Mary Beth. “This is piece we haven’t done in five or six years,” she explained to our small group of guests. “And we’re going to attempt to do a run through but might do a little stopping and starting.”
“Ritmos” opens with a vibrant and exciting flamenco piece, but becomes an eclectic musical journey including breathy, heartfelt Andes-inspired melodies, Middle Eastern themes, and a percussive, energetic piece by pop singer Shakira. It’s a bold and exciting mix, and a long way from “Swan Lake.”
I am a nuts and bolts person. I am fascinated by the mechanics of performance: set design, lighting, the fine tuning of choreography, even the duties of guitar techs. As I sat on a folding chair, a few feet from Mary Beth—elegant, energetic, focused, and dressed in her black Ballet Tucson sweats—I was intrigued to witness a small part of the process that a dance movement undergoes in its evolution from a digital recording on a compact disc, and an idea in a director’s mind, to a flowing live performance.
“It’s supposed to look effortless,” Libby told me later. From a seat in a darkened theatre, some distance from the stage, the performance is expected to appear effortless. But when you are perched on a folding chair in a brightly-lit rehearsal space, ten feet from the dancers, you see the hard breathing and perspiration, feel the concentration and hear the sound of contact. Up close, it’s a little shocking to discover just how forcefully dancers’ feet—and sometimes hands and knees—connect with that hard wood floor.
Mary Beth strikes me as a hands-on artistic director, completely involved with every aspect of the production. She is ready to jump up at any moment and interact with her company to demonstrate the throwing of a shawl, or a precise flip or turn, or to point out specifics of timing and placement: “What happens in this section is the adrenaline gets going, and it’s really important that you don’t rush.” And in reference to the motion of the flamenco dancers’ skirts: “Think of the bullfighter with his cape.”
And while Mary Beth worked with the principle dancers in “Ritmos de la Noche,” their understudies, positioned around the edges of the dance floor, practiced the same parts.
After a short break, I moved to Studio A, where husband-and-wife dance team and Artistic Associates Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner were quietly immersed in setting “Dark Elegies”—a 1937 piece by legendary choreographer Anthony Tudor. Inspired by Gusav Mahler’s “Isset to Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children), a composition that was, itself, inspired by a Friedrich Ruckert poem, “Dark Elegies” it is a complex, moody and highly unusual piece. Amanda explained the premise to me: “It is about a community who lost all their childeren; they were swept out to sea. The parents support each other through their grief. They move forward with hope, but only together. A loss that great can never be overcome, but can only be dealt with through support.” “Dark Elegies” is the fourth Anthony Tudor piece that Ballet Tucson has performed and the company’s strong association with the famous choreographer is a result of John and Amanda’s long professional relationship with him.
In rehearsal, the somber nature of “Dark Elegies” contrasts with John and Amanda’s gentle and encouraging staging. This couple are not only visiting artistic associates, but also highly accomplished ballet dancers in their own right. Mary Beth Cabana and John Gardner went to art school in Illinois together, and Amanda and John originally came to Ballet Tucson as performers, gradually making the transition to teachers. When Mary Beth founded Ballet Tucson, John was performing with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City. Mary Beth asked if John and Amanda would be willing to come out to Tucson to perform, and to teach, and the couple have worked with Ballet Tucson ever since.
Amanda reflects: “There aren’t that many husband and wife teams in ballet, for whatever reason. But we can be much more efficient as a team. We can go much faster and we can bring different sensibilities to each piece. It allows us to come at our work from different angles and be much more thorough. In rehearsal one person can’t see everything, no matter how hard you try. It’s really helpful to have two pairs of eyes, and to have someone who is a different gender too. We can be a lot more specific than if it’s just one of us.”
A few days after the open rehearsal, I received another not-to-be-missed invitation, from another husband-and-wife team: Dinner at the house of Ballet Tucson dancers Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup. Tall, poised, and worldly, they are as elegant a couple as I have ever met. Daniel’s charming Old-World Romanian manners reminded me of my childhood travels in Europe, and the plum brandy we were served as an aperitif was as strong and warming as a winter bonfire.
And so, after half a lifetime spent in the performing arts—in my case as a rock ‘n’ roll bassplayer and singer, and later as a television host—I find myself becoming acquainted with a fascinating circle of talented and passionate performers from a world almost entirely new to me. Ballet Tucson is both a family and a labor of love, and also an unusual opportunity to watch romantic partners following their muse together. Commenting on the working relationship with her husband, Amanda McKerrow told me, with more than a little joy in her voice: “I love what I do but I love it a lot more becuase I do it with him.”
Ballet Tucson’s Dance & Dessert will take place on March 12, 13 and 14 at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre at 1737 East University Boulevard on the U of A campus. Enjoy an “electic program” plus “gourmet desserts from may of Tucson’s favorite restaurants.”
Tickets can be purchased directly from Ballet Tucson. Call (520) 903-1445 for more information, or visit the Ballet Tucson website.