A Real Trouper
Southern Arizona Dance Theater Calls On The Talents Of A Master.
By Margaret Regan
ONCE UPON A time, Richard Holden was a soloist with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, dancing in the first performance ever at New York's Lincoln Center in 1966. And he worked as a dancer, choreographer or notator with such leading troupes as the American Ballet Theater, led by Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Joffrey Ballet, the Harness and the New York Theater ballets.
Nowadays, he's resident choreographer for the Southern Arizona Dance Theater, a small Tucson company of adults and kids that's only been around a few years. The company gives a Tucson premiere this weekend to an hour-long Holden ballet, Two Pigeons, a sumptuous romantic affair full of gypsy dancing, some two dozen dancers and 19th-century French music, a dance he composed 10 years ago for New York Theater Ballet. (The concert also offers a kid-pleasing Peter and the Wolf and the contemporary Kaleidoscope for six ballerinas, both choreographed by company artistic director Jane Matty Willett.)
But Holden's switch to a semi-pro troupe in the hinterlands is not as surprising as it seems. For one thing, Holden is at an age when most dancers are long retired, though he admits only to being "over 50, let's say." And he's had Arizona connections for decades.
"I've known Jane Matty for many years," he says. "I used to come to Tucson in the late '60s."
As first artistic director of the Tucson Civic Ballet, which later evolved into Ballet Arizona, Holden would fly into town from New York several times a year. Elizabeth Shaw, now a board member with the Southern Arizona Dance Theater, said the fledgling company hired Holden around 1967 to help give it a professional boost. The collaboration prospered. Holden gave Tucson its first big Nutcracker, along with other big ballets along the lines of Coppélia, Alice in Wonderland and even the regional Western Symphony.
It was in those years that Holden first met Jane Matty Willett.
"Jane was a little girl of 10," Holden remembers. "She was in those productions. I was in my 40s then, and I danced the Nutcracker with her."
Young Jane went on to have a professional career in ballet, dancing with the Dutch National Ballet, and performing as a soloist with the San Francisco, Pennsylvania and Indiana University ballets. Eventually, she came back home to study architecture, marry and raise a family.
Meantime, Holden had made Tucson his permanent home, though he hardly retired. He took on the job of choreographer for Arizona Opera. ("It's the only thing I'm ever paid for.") He continued to stage ballet works for a variety of companies around the country (his Revolutionary War version of The Nutcracker, complete with English Redcoats, has been performed every Christmas for the last 12 years in New Jersey), and he even found time for a short stint as the Tucson Weekly's dance critic.
So, when Matty Willett decided to put together a new company, she naturally called on her old dancing partner. Holden, who calls his old friend "a fine dancer," happily agreed.
Southern Arizona Dance Theater is a mix of seasoned pros like Matty Willett, who dances the lead of the gypsy Lilea in Holden's Two Pigeons, and Jane Pesqueira, another Tucson Civic Ballet alumna who went on to dance with the San Francisco Ballet, and aspiring kid dancers, most of whom train at Matty Willett's studio, Dance Visions. Then there are the young adults at the beginning of their careers, such as Jordan Tircuit, whom Holden recently cast as a dancer in Arizona Opera's production of La Traviata.
Though Holden doesn't dance in this weekend's concert, he can still be seen every Christmas in Tucson Regional Ballet's Southwest Nutcracker.
"I play Zorro in a big black cape, the Mexican version of Drosselmayer."
And though he can no longer do quite the squat kicks he was once capable of, he still regularly dances vigorous ethnic dance with Kalinka Russian Dance Ensemble, a folk troupe he founded in Tucson several years ago. Holden, who's half-Russian, notes that the fiery gypsy dances of Two Pigeons have a connection with his love of Russian culture.
"At this stage of my life my mission is to popularize and keep folk dances going."
Southern Arizona Dance Theater this weekend offers four performances of a ballet concert featuring Peter and the Wolf, Kaleidoscope and Two Pigeons at the Proscenium Theatre, PCC, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Curtain is at 7 p.m. Friday, June 6; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, June 7; and 2 p.m. Sunday, June 8. Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students, children and seniors. For information or reservations, call 881-6461.
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