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A love letter to ballet

New Chieko Imada piece set to premiere in Ballet Tucson’s Winter Concert with Tucson Desert Song Festival
Chieko Imada in Eternal Love rehearsal. -- Courtesy of Margaret Mullin
Chieko Imada in “Eternal Love” rehearsal. — Courtesy of Margaret Mullin

When Chieko Imada, the associate artistic director and resident choreographer of Ballet Tucson, creates a new piece, she chooses music she loves.

For “Eternal Love,” she tapped music from 20th century French singer Edith Piaf. 

“Eternal Love” is one of four pieces Ballet Tucson will perform Feb. 9-11 in partnership with the Tucson Desert Song Festival. Ballet Tucson has been partnering with the Song Festival for over a decade and, with this year’s theme being love songs, Imada felt that Piaf’s music was perfect for the occasion.

“’Eternal Love’ is a very emotional piece,” said Ballet Tucson principal dancer Danielle Cesanek. “The music is really enchanting, too. Edith’s songs totally capture all the emotions she felt in her life. The movements Chieko created really seamlessly blend the story with the music.”

Imada describes the French singer’s music as powerful and emotional; she knew it was going to be a tall order to find a vocalist who could perform it with the emotional punch and in French.

“The power and resonance of Edith Piaf’s voice is so distinct and so special,” Ballet Tucson Artistic Director Margaret Mullin said. “It’s not just light singing; it’s really gotta have a lot of heart. Kind of a raw quality in a sense. You can feel the genuine heartbreak.” 

Principal dancer Madeleine Kueble and Chieko Imada and in “Eternal Love” rehearsal. — Courtesy of Margaret Mullin

When Mullin reached out to Khris Dodge, the conductor and director of Tucson Pops Orchestra and executive director of the Tucson Jazz Festival, he knew the perfect singer: Katherine Byrnes. 

“She’s actually based here in Tucson, she’s got a powerhouse voice, she speaks French, the whole package,” Mullins said.

Dodge, who has performed with Byrnes, agreed to accompany her on the piano for the performance. 

The piece includes 30 dancers and will be a mix of ballet and contemporary with storytelling inspired by Piaf’s life.

“She grew up in a very poor family with a very tragic life,” said Imada, who took what she learned about Piaf’s life and used it to create a piece that captures the emotion in her music. “It’s about love and divorce and tragedy and, at the very end, faith.”

“Edith Piaf had a really incredible story. Her life wasn’t always easy and so the ballet really articulates her highs and lows,” Cesarek said. “Throughout her life, though, she really seemed to be reaching for that true love, which seems to be the overall theme of Chieko’s piece.”

Cesarek says her love of music is one of the many reasons why she dances. The partnership with the Song Festival provides the opportunity to perform with live vocal performers. 

Mullin said she is thankful for the diversity of vision of the Song Festival that allows non-vocal organizations to collaborate.

“Eternal Love” is one of three new to the company pieces in Ballet Tucson’s Winter Concert.

“It’s funny, we go through a whole process in stacking the season accordingly,” Mullin said. “I feel like this program ended up feeling like kind of a great showcase of the evolution of ballet and also how we can continue to explore its use.”

The oldest piece in the program is the romantic “Giselle” Act II, choreographed by Imada based on Petipa’s revival with music by Adolphe Adam. Mullin described this almost 200-year-old piece as a demonstration of the history of ballet. 

Mullin’s “Lost in Light” pas de deux (dance for two) that she originally choreographed for Pacific Northwest Ballet was inspired by 20th century choreographer Antony Tudor’s work, to music by Tucson Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence Dan Coleman.

“After the Rain” pas de deux by Christopher Wheeldon (“MJ the Musical”)  is making its Arizona debut with music by Arvo Pärt.

“He is one of the biggest choreographers in the ballet and dance world,” Cesarek said.

“It was a very exciting thing to get into the rep because I know it’s very sought after,” Mullin said.

The pieces all align with the Song Festival’s love theme and the upcoming Valentines holiday. 

“I feel like it kinda ended up being like a love letter to ballet kind of show,” said Mullin. “Love ballet and love love.”

Ballet Tucson will perform its Winter Concert at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb 10, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11, at the Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets ($20-$50) are available through

Arizona Sonoran News is a news service of the University of Arizona School of Journalism.

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