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"Giselle" Showcases Top-Notch Dance Talent

By Margaret Regan

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  ALICIA ALONSO MAY well be the last living representative of classical Russian badiences this week have a chance to see her version of dance untainted by modernism. On Wednesday, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company Alonso founded back in 1948, brings her sumptuous production of Giselle to Centennial Hall.

The romantic 19th-century ballet that Alonso herself danced more than any other, Giselle is a strange story of a fragile young peasant woman trifled with by a prince. In her grief, she dances herself to death, and joins the otherworldly Wilis, prospective brides who never had a chance to wed. Yet Giselle still protects her prince even after death.

Alonso's own illustrious dancing career was shaped in part by politics. A prima ballerina in New York in the '40s and '50s, Alonso danced with American Ballet Theater and American Ballet Caravan. She worked with choreographic luminaries from Balanchine to de Mille. But after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Alonso worked mostly in her native country. She and her Cuban dancers were not entirely isolated, however: They enjoyed frequent fruitful exchanges with the Soviet Union's Kirov and Bolshoi ballets, devotees both of the classical tradition Alonso herself was the first Westerner to dance in the USSR.

Now 77, Alonso no longer performs, but she's launched her company on its first major U.S. tour in 20 years. Her Giselle is unabashedly traditional, a hearkening back to the Russian school. In a 1979 interview, she told writer Barbara Newman, "In our company...we try definitely to understand the Romantic style, definitely to understand in what time was that ballet done...(Giselle) is very special. I think it captures the essence of Romanticism in a very beautiful way."

TUCSON'S OWN EVA Tessler was the hit of the show at the Fifth Annual Arizona Contemporary Dance Festival at the PCC Center for the Arts last weekend.

Performing in a line-up of 10 modern dance companies from around the state, Tessler and the Zenith Dance Collective were a standout in her powerful elegy "The Shining Path: To Daniel Forever." Six dancers, Tessler included, danced a series of athletic movements on the theme of coming together and breaking apart. The work was shaded by some political overtones about group resistance, but it was also a kind of widow's dance, dedicated to Tessler's late husband, Daniel Nugent, a UA anthropology prof and playwright who died at age 43 in 1997.

"The Shining Path" was everything modern dance can be: profound, emotional, but commendably stark in its aesthetics. The concert, which annually gathers a coalition of loosely defined "professional" modern dance troupes based in Arizona, also showcased modern dance at its worst. Inspired by some truly bad work, my companion proposed an excellent new rule for start-up modern dance troupes: submit to a total ban on New Age music.

The combination of insipid New Agey rhythms and inept dance is about impossible to take, as Opendance so ably demonstrated. Likewise, Flagstaff's Canyon Movement Company did a tedious work alluding to the distant past. "Gathers & Cast Away" was full of rocks and serious faces and music of hypnotic boredom.

Tucson's own modern dance troupes have long since accustomed their audiences to far more intelligent work. Annie Bunker and Charles Thompson of Orts Theatre of Dance reprised Bunker's "Ave Maria," a spare trapeze piece whose spirituality turns erotic. Thom Lewis of Tenth Street Danceworks performed his familiar "Dreaming Under Fire," a powerful solo that merges "The myth of Prometheus and the American tragedy of Vietnam," as a program note explains.

Frances Smith Cohen's Center Dance Ensemble, a much-respected Phoenix group, performed her superb "A Time for Silence, A Time to Be Together." Cohen nimbly moved 13 dancers through complicated groupings. The only music in the first half was the body rhythms generated by the dancers slapping their legs. Desert Dance Theatre, also up in the Valley of the Sun, did the amusing "Ritmica Caliente" about a lonely guy's fantasies at a swing dance ballroom. A Ludwig Dance Theater performed a series of tantalizing--if too short--excerpts from Ludgwig's full-length work on marriage, "Til Death Do Us Part." The parading brides at the beginning were a hoot.

The moral of the concert, as it has been from the festival's inception five years ago, is this: Organizer Chuck Fischl of Southwest Dance should expel the worst of the troupes through some form of competitive audition. It would be a far, far better thing to have a concert of only the best companies. I'd rather see Tessler or Bunker or Cohen's troupe perform twice, or even thrice, than be subjected to a single additional offering of ancient mania.

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