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Chuck Graham

Chuck Graham

Southern Arizona Online, a publication of the Tucson Citizen

Look! Up in the sky! It's Orts!

The local dance company will thrill audiences with another all-aerial show this weekend.


A dancer swings through the air during "Rapture: Rumi," which Orts Theatre of Dance performs Oct. 15-17.
Photo by XAVIER GALLEGOS/Tucson Citizen

Remember the childhood joy of making yourself go higher and higher on a schoolyard swing? Or your first circus and that heart-stopping moment when the guy in tights on the flying trapeze let go of the bar and sailed through the air? How about those wonderful dreams where it feels like you are actually flying?
All these memories come into play every time Orts Theatre of Dance takes to the air for another of its all-aerial concerts. There is a special mystery to this choreography performed on a swinging, swirling, three-point trapeze - something that connects to the elemental desire of escaping Earth's gravity.
How one can feel such freedom just by watching dancers swing in graceful arcs onstage is a mystery so special it defies definition. No one knows exactly how aerial dance can instantly tap this deep-seated blend of excitement and fun.
Annie Bunker, Orts' founder and artistic director, doesn't care about that. She just wants to swing.
"I saw Robert Davidson's trapeze choreography at an arts convention in 1991. I was immediately moved. I knew right then it was the direction the company needed to go," Bunker recalled.
The artistic director invited Denver-based Davidson out to the desert to set some of his unique dances-with-trapeze on her company. That concert was an immediate sensation with local audiences.
Since then, Davidson has returned several times. His full-length aerial dance based on the historical life of a spiritual mystic from the middle ages, "Meister Eckhart," was so enthusiastically received it was repeated last season.
Now Davidson is back with a new full-length dance based on another religious mystic, Jalal al-Din Rumi, who lived in Persia in the 13th century. Rumi founded the Sumi order of the Whirling Dervishes.
"Sufi is the esoteric side of the Muslim text," Davidson explained. "His poems are basic to the Sufi religion. In Islam they are regarded as mystical. During his lifetime, Rumi wrote 40,000 poems, many of them four-line quatrains."
Combining words and movement has been an essential element of Davidson's dance art, as well. At present his Denver students are experimenting with five-minute scenes from Shakespeare, improvising text and trapeze.
"Rapture: Rumi," as Orts' new work is called, integrates 12 of Rumi's short poems into choreography performed to a music score composed by Steven Flynn. Each spoken poem, recorded on tape, is played to enhance a particular dance.
This poem is at the beginning.
"Don't come to us without bringing music.
We celebrate with drum and flute,
with wine not made from grapes,
in a place you cannot imagine."
And this poem is toward the end.
"Gone, inner and outer,
no moon, no ground, no sky.
Don't hand me another glass of wine.
Pour it in my mouth.
I've lost the way to my mouth."

The music score is described as being based on traditional Sufi music that transforms itself "into powerful driving evocations of 20th century modern music."
"Rapture: Rumi" is based on the recorded incidents of an intense student-teacher relationship between Rumi in his mid-30s and Shams al-Din, a strong-willed mystic nearly 30 years older.
In program notes, Davidson explains: "The dance and music focus on three fundamental images drawn from Rumi's poetry: the magnificent perfection of circles, the drunkenness of divine love, and the complex dynamic tension between Lover and Beloved."
Though "Rumi" and "Meister Eckhart" are both inspired by religious mystics from the middle ages - one Christian, one Muslim - Davidson is reluctant to say religion is important in his life.
"Spirituality is important to me," he explains. "I don't want to say religion. The religious figures I've focused on have always been unorthodox."
What Davidson has known since childhood is he has always loved to be up in the air. In snapshots from the family photo album, Davidson the little boy was always on the roof, in a tree, on the goal posts, on a trapeze.
"I was never on the ground," said Davidson.
"My father would build a new playground gym in the backyard whenever we moved, and it always had a trapeze. And I always wanted to be the circus trapeze artist."
From there Davidson grew up to be a dancer, choreographer, teacher and innovator of this particular discipline on a rope. He estimates 10 companies in the United States are actively exploring the use of a trapeze in modern dance. Since that fateful meeting in 1991, Orts has been an eager recipient of Davidson's new trapeze choreography.

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