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Urban Brights

Five Local Artists Get Together To Depict Downtown In All Its Diversity.

By Margaret Regan

BY THEIR OWN tally, the five artists who created this weekend's Urban Gaits multi-media dance performance have spent some 87 years working in Tucson's downtown.

 Choreographer Anne Bunker has had studios downtown since 1983. Composer Chuck Koesters dropped his at times hapless heart in 1979, video artist Nancy Solomon around 1982, writer Charles Alexander in 1984. Painter Cynthia Miller claims the longest history. An early Dinnerware member who grew up in Tucson, Miller can declare, "I've been coming downtown since 1963."

This weekend the artists' long years of eking out a sometimes precarious living in the city's old warehouses and sharing its streets with sundry lawyers and street people, with office workers, the elderly and kids, will emerge in the collaboration they've dubbed Urban Gaits. It's an hour-and-a-half-long work that Miller calls a "visual poem to downtown." Alexander, the wordsmith, amplifies her definition, countering that it's an "audiovisual poem."

The quintet of artists, who have collaborated in smaller groupings in the past, gathered in the O-T-O Theatre of Dance studio one recent noonday to describe the new piece. Their conversation, like the exchange between Miller and her husband, Alexander, was like a series of dizzying jazz riffs. Mirroring the give-and-take of their working method, each artist spun off the previous one's statement. Asked why they made a work about the city center, Koesters declared, "Downtown has a power, it is something." To which his wife, Bunker, responded, "When I think of a city I never think of malls. The advent of the malls killed cities. Downtowns are coming back."

Solomon, leery of the idea that the piece carries a message, cautioned: "This is about what is," and Alexander agreed, saying the work is about the "richness of trying to see." Yes, said Miller, "It's a description of what is."

And while the artists spoke, some of the images they've captured in the work rolled on by outside, like art come to life: a white-bearded homeless man pushing a cart full of stuff, a snorting train in luscious maroons and rusts rattling by on the nearby tracks. The artists have shaped a range of downtown staples--lawyers, lunchtime workers, Club Congress dancers, homeless people, the elderly--into a work that recounts a day in the life of the downtown, from sunrise on a Friday to sunrise on a Saturday. Divided into 21 distinct segments, the tale is told through dance, music, song, video, spoken word and light, with Miller contributing a bevy of painted doorway props and a giant metal ring.

"It's like a circus," Koesters said gleefully. "It's the same kind of spectacle."

Solomon and Koesters' video images of downtown will be projected onto three walls inside the theatre in the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts. Alexander, proprietor of Chax Press, will play a storyteller, reading his own poetry, while a pair of singers, Cantrell Maryott and Craig Oakes, sing some of Alexander's words to new music created by Koesters. Other evocative words chosen by Alexander flutter through the videos on pieces of paper. Koesters wrote an original score for the entire work, incorporating the rhythms of downtown's ubiquitous trains and sirens into his synthesizer music, which will be played on tape during the show.

A team of eight O-T-O dancers, fresh from their provocative performance of Airborne: Meister Eckhart last month, will dance choreography by Bunker, O-T-O' artistic director. At a rehearsal one day last week, O-T-O regulars Stacey Haynes, Charles Thompson and Nathan Dryden were dressed in business suits and burdened with briefcases. Rehearsing "Daily Grind," a regimented dance about the workaday world, the dancers turned their lithe bodies stiff, pushing them up-down, up-down, and relentlessly marched again and again though Miller's doorways. In a piece Bunker based on the troupe's "field trip" to Club Congress, the dancers metamorphosed into sex-hungry gyrators, dancing to a driving rock beat. For that piece, Bunker explained, videos of the O-T-O dancers at Club Congress will play on the backdrop.

But not every segment in the work will feature video along with dance. The ominous "From Nowhere," based on Bunker's experience of seeing a car full of people fire shots at the police station late at night, has no accompanying video. Instead, Koesters' lights will project large, scary shadows of the dancers onto the walls.

The show, Bunker said, "starts with dance and no video, and ends with video and no dance, but with the singers' voices...Sometimes it's just video, sometimes it's just singers, sometimes it's just children."

The title Urban Gaits is a double entendre that plays on the multiple meanings of "gates" and "gaits." "Gates," Miller said, is "a big buzzword in the arts," while "gaits" stands for the distinctive movements of assorted downtown denizens. Solomon said she got some of her best gaits video shots at the Sixth Avenue Post Office down the street from her studio, a place where nearly all downtowners go sooner or later.

 "I was shooting people going in and out," she said, "the elderly with canes, the young people striding in and out."

Once the piece was well underway, the artists realized they had left out one significant group of downtown diehards: Themselves and their colleagues. Said Solomon, "Artists were the hardest to represent."

"We're in the video," Alexander pointed out.

Fittingly, Bunker, who directs the entire piece, had the final word.

"It's kind of downtown seen through the eyes of artists, and the artists' senses and media," she said. "Artists are the work: They are not really in the work."

Urban Gaits, a multimedia piece presented by O-T-O Theatre of Dance, will be performed at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts, 408 S. Sixth Ave. There's a preview matinee at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, November 20. Regular showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday, November 20; 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. Friday, November 21; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, November 22; and 2 p.m. Sunday, November 23. Because of the video, seating will be limited. Advance tickets are $8 general, $6 for students and seniors. Tickets at the door are $10 general, $8 for students and seniors. For information or reservations, call 744-2375.

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