Ballet Tucson: 30 and Growing Still

By Kittredge, Callie | AZ Daily Star, November 12, 2015 | Go to article overview

Ballet Tucson: 30 and Growing Still


Kittredge, Callie, AZ Daily Star


Isaiah Sumler is in his first official season with Ballet Tucson.

Jenna Johnson, lead dancer with Ballet Tucson, rehearses with Mauricio Vergara in the company's 8,000-square-foot South Tucson Boulevard studio,

Megan Steffens is Ivy in "Jekyll and Hyde" and the soloist in "Carmina Burana."

Mary Beth Cabana, founder of Ballet Tucson, helps students Ross Sounart and Liz Ketcham, who will appear in the company's holiday "Nutcracker" presentation.

Mary Beth Cabana leads a class of students who will appear in the company's "Nutcracker" this Christmas.

Mary Beth Cabana has gone steampunk.

The founding artistic director of Ballet Tucson loves the way the movement is like "the past looking at the future."

She and Chieko Imada, her assistant artistic director, had been talking about a steampunk ballet for several years. This is the year they do it.

The centerpiece of Ballet Tucson's season opener this weekend is a steampunk version of "Jekyll and Hyde," choreographed by Cabana and Imada.

"We are a classically based ballet company, but we want to keep current," says Cabana, taking a break from preparing for her 30th season. "We want to attract new audiences. And a steampunk alternate version of Victorian history with sci-fi elements is a perfect fit for a ballet."

If you go steampunk, you've got to embrace the elaborate costumes. Creating ones that are movable for the dancers is a tricky process, Cabana says. For the season-opener, Ballet Tucson's costumers have created and adjusted wardrobe pieces that incorporate the leather, Victorian dresses, buckles and elaborate coats that define steampunk and allow the dancers to move freely. Having worked with Cabana for more than 20 years, they were up to the challenge.

As was Cabana, who launched the company 30 seasons ago.

At a recent class, the Ballet Tucson dancers glide, bend, stretch, and sweat.

They leap through the air and land with barely a sound. Though they are using nearly every muscle, they never seem to strain.

They adjust their bodies and feet according to the instructions of Cabana, who watches closely for technique.

Class done, they begin rehearsal for Friday's opening of Ballet Tucson's latest season.

They spend about 40 hours a week like this, moving to music and Cabana's instructions.

Ballet is hard work. Dancers ignore pain, coddle their feet and are fearless in their mission to tell a story through impossibly beautiful body movement.

They live their passion.

Especially Cabana, who launched the, professional dance company and its training school Ballet Arts, in 1986.

"Dance is my life force," says Cabana. "It gets me out of the bed in the morning."

In the beginning...

Cabana, who grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, says her father was her first teacher.

"He was a champion amateur foxtrot dancer," she says. "He would teach me to dance, my feet on his. ... He was a fabulous dancer."

But she never thought of it as a career until she was about 6 and she saw a 13-year-old Joyce Cuoco -- known for her amazing balance and multiple dizzying pirouettes -- on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s. "It captivated me," says Cabana.

She told her mother that she wanted to dance like Cuoco and began to study ballet.

She was just 14 when she launched her career as a professional dancer with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. She went on to become a principal dancer with the Cleveland Ballet, Ballet Oklahoma and the San Diego Ballet.

Cabana was in her mid-20s when she joined the Tucson-based Arizona Dance Theatre; she danced with the company and ran the training school. Two seasons later, in April 1986, Arizona Dance Theatre merged with the Phoenix Ballet to become Ballet Arizona based out of Phoenix.

A ballet school and company is born -- and a dancer is threatened

Though she had the option to move with the company, Cabana decided to stay in the Old Pueblo. …

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