‘Made in America’

Ballet Tucson finds homegrown works are fair plié

By Laura Latzko

As with any dance form, ballet continues to evolve. It takes on new forms and incorporates different types of music, costumes and sets.

During its “Made in America” concert, Ballet Tucson will showcase how varied the art form can be.

The winter concert—set for January 31 to February 2 at Pima Community College’s West Campus—will present George Balanchine’s piece “Serenade” along with premieres of Chieko Imada’s “Unsquare” and Mark Schneider’s “Recollections.”

Founding Artistic Director Mary Beth Cabana says the concert gives a taste of the company’s versatility as well as its innovativeness.

“We wanted everything to be different and have a lot of variety for the audience, in terms of not only the music they would be listening to but also visually what they are looking at,” Cabana says.

As the company’s assistant artistic director, Imada regularly choreographs pieces. Along with the work of Imada and Cabana, Ballet Tucson also works regularly with guest choreographers such as Schneider.

Created in 1934, “Serenade” is one of the most well-known pieces by Balanchine and was written shortly after he immigrated to the United States from Russia.

One of the signature pieces of the New York City Ballet, “Serenade” is set to Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings in C.” During her career as a dancer, Cabana performed in the show in the principal Russian Girl role. The piece highlights more than 20 female dancers, all of whom wear pale blue costumes.

In “Unsquare,” Imada blends classical ballet and jazz dance movements and evokes the innovative nature of jazz music. 

The piece showcases the company’s prima ballerina Jenna Johnson, a Cincinnati-born dancer who worked with companies in Romania and California before moving to Tucson 15 seasons ago.

Cabana says Johnson and Imada have developed the piece’s choreography.

“There’s a give-and-take process when something is being created,” Cabana says. “Chieko will go into the studio and have a set outline of what she is doing. It’s pretty filled in, but then, when she gets in there, she is working with Jenna. She has an idea for something and Jenna naturally does something else better than what she had in mind. Or if something isn’t working, and Jenna just tries something, and it works well,

“Chieko will accept that as part of the choreography.”

The piece will also feature jazz music selections, scenic design from artist Lawrence Lee and geometric costumes with a flavor of the 1950s and 1960s.

In “Recollections,” dancers will perform to popular turn-of-the-century songs such as “Bicycle Built for Two,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” and “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” The piece will feature period costumes with parasols and skimmer hats, vocals from Katherine Byrnes and Rob Wright and onstage musical accompaniment.

“The dancers are right there, dancing to live music. It creates a whole different kind of energy and electricity for the dancers. I think it’s something the audience picks up on, too,” Cabana says.

Each year, the ballet company presents its winter concert as part of the Tucson Desert Song Festival, which works with different art organizations to provide a variety of musical experiences for audiences.

As part of its partnership with the song festival, the company incorporates live music into its winter concerts.

This year’s concert theme fits with the festival’s focus on American song.

Cabana says live music offers a different layer to the performances, for the audience members and dancers. The partnership has also helped the ballet company to expand on its audience. 

Ballet Tucson is in its 34th season, 16 of which have been as a professional dance company. In its concerts, the company blends contemporary and classical ballet works.

The winter production will feature more 30 male and female dancers of different backgrounds and skill levels. They will perform in larger groups as well as in solos, duets, trios and quartets.   

Professional company dancers and apprentices all take part in concerts.

Working with the company allows apprentices to continue to develop their skills and gain experience with a professional company.

“They are looking to take the next steps in their journey to becoming a full-time, realized professional dancer,” Cabana says.

Some of the dancers start out with the company’s school, Ballet Arts, and move up through the ranks.

Other dancers come in from different parts of the United States. Throughout the years, the company has also had dancers from other countries such as Japan, Mexico, Russia, Romania, England and Australia.

Dancers at different levels get a chance to take on major roles during the concerts.

Cabana says they are often drawn to the Tucson company because of its diverse repertoire.

“We attract good dancers from all over the place because of the kind of eclectic repertoire we do. This is an important thing for not only recruiting high-quality dancers into the company but then also with the dancers that are dancing with us to continue to develop them,” Cabana says.