When someone says ‘Tucson’, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Sunsets? Biotech? Lack of a coherent, speedy means of driving across town?
When most people think of Tucson, they’re likely to think of cactus and maybe the rodeo. Cowboy hats and ropers, sure, but leotards and toe shoes? Not so much.
But Tucson is nothing if not a town of contradictions and unexpected surprises. We do indeed have high-tech living happily alongside the old and rustic – and cowboys peacefully existing amid a thriving arts and culture scene.
“Tucson is very artsy,” said Mary-Beth Cabana, founder of Ballet Arts and Ballet Tucson. “The symphony is here. Arizona Theatre Company is here. The opera used to be (based) here,” her passion for the arts evident in her voice. “There are more and more people here that see the value of a rich arts community.”
And Cabana knows a rich arts community when she sees one.
Before moving to Tucson, she was a teacher at Ballet Arts Carnegie Hall in New York City. Before that, she was a principal dancer with the Cleveland Ballet, Ballet Oklahoma and the San Diego Ballet. She made the move to sleepy little Tucson in 1984, when she was recruited as a principal dancer for Arizona Dance Theatre.
“Tucson was much smaller then,” she said, “but there was a burgeoning arts community.” Eventually, Arizona Dance Theatre – now known as Ballet Arizona – pulled up stakes and relocated about 100 miles up the road, a.k.a., Phoenix.
The director of the company offered Cabana a plum assignment: to be the principal teacher and run the school. But, like many Tucsonans facing relocation to the Valley of the Sun, she was hesitant. “I didn’t want to go,” she said. She had recently married and didn’t want to have a long-distance marriage. “I didn’t think that would be fair to my husband.”
So she stayed in town and weighed her options. What she did next was something more from the pages of a business school textbook than a playbill – she opened her own business.
“I was interested in teaching,” she said. “So I decided to start my own thing.”
That ‘thing’ was the Ballet Arts school, which has grown into something of an institution in Tucson in the 25 years since it opened. Ballet Arts offers serious students a rigorous course of study of classical ballet as well as other forms of dance. The school has produced world-class professional dancers who have performed in top-notch professional companies. Two former students are currently Radio City Rockettes.
Cabana herself became something of an icon, having been recently recognized at Lincoln Center for her contributions as a ballet instructor.
“I have no idea how they even found me,” she said, almost shrugging off the accolade. “But a lot of our former students have gone on to be professional dancers around the country. I’m guessing that’s where it came from.”
The school had humble beginnings more befitting of a dress shop or insurance office than a world-class ballet school.
“We were in a strip mall at Grant and Alvernon,” she said, recalling those early days. “It was a big space, but really long and narrow. Not so great for a dance school.”
Eventually the school grew and took on adjacent spaces in the strip mall. When plans were announced to raze the mall, Cabana had to find a new location.
Like most things in life, the move came at a really bad time – the middle of the school year. But, with the help of about a half dozen fathers of her students, the school was moved over the Christmas break. “They installed the floors and everything,” she recalled.
Cabana’s vision didn’t end with the Ballet Arts school. She wanted to do more to promote and nurture ballet in Southern Arizona. In 1986, she formed a not-for-profit organization with the hope of basing a professional ballet company in Tucson. It would be years before Ballet Tucson, the only professional dance company in Southern Arizona, was finally born.
Funded through ticket sales, corporate and private donations, as well as grants, Ballet Tucson is a company of classically trained, professional dancers. The dancers, recruited from all over the globe, are based in Tucson and have a 20-week contract with Ballet Tucson. Unlike big-name touring productions that come to town from time to time, Ballet Tucson is truly local – an organic part of the Old Pueblo.
While the downturn in the economy has affected both the school and Ballet Tucson, Cabana is looking ahead to the future. “As an artist, I remain optimistic. I have a lot of experience and I want to see what I can create,” she said. “I’m 53 and I have a lot of good years left. I just keep looking forward.”