ARTIFACT Dance’s Deco Dream

March 3, 2014 |
"Speak Easy" features Claire Hancock, Ashley Bowman, Jilian Wereb, Shelly Steigerwald, Ben Nisbet, Chris Black and Naïm Amor. photo: Shelly Flores

“Speak Easy” features Claire Hancock, Ashley Bowman, Jilian Wereb, Shelly Steigerwald, Ben Nisbet, Chris Black and Naïm Amor.
photo: Shelly Flores

If you observe the Old Pueblo’s unique architecture, you can find elements from many different eras—Victorian to Art Deco to Modernism. But how often do those eras come to life in the arts locally? Sure, we can revel in the excitement of John Dillinger’s 1934 capture with Hotel Congress’ annual “Dillinger Days” festivities, but other events tied to a specific era are seemingly few and far between. This month, Tucson’s ARTIFACT Dance Project changes that with its world premiere performance of Speak Easy.

Speak Easy is set during the Prohibition era (1920-1933), and is a full-length concert that looks inside the speakeasy culture via New York City’s underground liquor and entertainment nightclubs. The era’s clubs gave birth to fashion, dance and music trends like no other, and films like “The Cotton Club,” “The Great Gatsby” and others have demonstrated the depth and breadth of its influence on popular culture ever since.

The Speak Easy experience in the performance is witnessed through the eyes of American journalist Lois Lang, and showcases her encounters with agents, bootleggers and flappers who break the rules to the beat of Jazz classics, and dance the night away while hiding from the law. The Speak Easy story is really the “story of a culture” as opposed to one person’s story and showcases a fascinating time in America’s history, according to ARTIFACT’s Co-Artistic Director Ashley Bowman. The combination of art, culture, music and dance of the era is a rich vein to mine, and Speak Easy presents these elements in a way new to Tucson audiences.

Part of ARTIFACT’s mission is to always collaborate with guest artists on these ambitious projects. For this production, guest composers/musicians Chris Black and Naim Amor have joined forces with ARTIFACT music director Ben Nesbit to create the score for the show. It will be performed by a live seven-piece band during the performance on stage. This, along with a dance troupe of 11, promises to make for a memorable evening in the intimacy of the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, which holds just 300 people.

The “thrill of live humanity and art forms combining” is one of the draws to this event, says Bowman, who is most proud of the company’s ongoing collaborative artistic performances, which are unique and the troupe’s trademark of sorts. Bowman says she can’t imagine not performing with live music or without collaborating in some form with other artists for its productions.

This performance may follow in the footsteps of other ARTIFACT pieces by touring here in the United States or internationally. A few years ago, an ARTIFACT show toured China, and the piece has been designed to be staged again if there is support to do so. The elaborate sets, costumes, original music and dance works created for Speak Easy deserve more than the three scheduled performances on tap. One can hope that this slice of historic, artistic heaven can continue to enchant audiences while telling the tale of an important genesis in American artistic expression.

ARTIFACT Dance Project’s “Speak Easy” takes place at the Stevie Eller Dance Theatre, 1713 E. University Blvd., on the campus of the University of Arizona. Performances are Friday and Saturday, March 21-22 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, March 23 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $25 general admission and $18 for students of all ages. Tickets are available at

Category: Arts, DOWNTOWN / UNIVERSITY / 4TH AVE, Entertainment, Events