Ballet Arizona has had a "ballet under the stars" program for years. We've been, and it's lovely.

But last spring, our resident ballet company and its artistic director, Ib Andersen, teamed up with the Desert Botanical Garden to spoil us rotten — and now we're not sure any ballet will ever live up to Topia. Set on a stage custom-built for the performance (and twice as long as a traditional stage) and (in a ballsy move) placed outside at the far end of the garden, with a perfect backdrop of the Papago Buttes, desert foliage, and a star-spangled sky, Andersen's original choreography teamed with beautiful dancers, gorgeous near-naked costumes, and music by Beethoven to create one of the most breathtaking ballet experiences the Valley has ever witnessed. If you were lucky enough to see it, you know that Topia was magic — and best of all, a celebration of the best of our Valley. Too often we're jealous of other cities' arts experiences; not this time. Eat your heart out, world — we had Topia.
Scorpius Dance Theatre
Courtesy of Lisa Starry

Before you try a few new moves, you'll want to take some notes from the pros. And while the footwork choreographed by Lisa Starry for her Scorpius Dance Theatre might be a little much to take to the club, every step, bend, lift, and stretch performed by her dancers would be guaranteed to get you a double take — given you can pull 'em off. Starry founded Scorpius Dance in 1999, and ever since, her troupe of sexy, humorous, and kick-ass dancers has taken to countless stages in productions including A Vampire Tale, Catwalk, and this year's much-anticipated Kick-A, a local spin-off of the nationally acclaimed Carnival: Choreographers Ball, in which Starry found the "Best in the West" for Scorpius' first-ever choreographer showcase. Scorpius moves with a collective — and, yes, contemporary — emotion, grace, and magnetism that you'd be lucky to come across (or practice yourself) on a dance floor.

Anyone convinced that classical music is all stuffy musicians in starched white collars needs to investigate the Downtown Chamber Series, a concert series that features highly skilled musicians of all ages interpreting the music of composers like minimalist Steve Reich and Beethoven in unexpected places, like downtown art space The Icehouse, restaurant/multi-purpose venue The Duce, and the Phoenix Art Museum. The sounds are strange and exciting, and the musicians bring an edgy spirit to the classical material that rivals the noisemakers at Trunk Space and can be as heavy as anything going on in the Nile Basement.

FilmBar

Sometimes sipping a stiff drink and taking in a movie is the best way to unwind. Lucky for cinephiles and cocktail enthusiasts (and those who fall into both categories) FilmBar lives up to its compound moniker.

With near-daily screenings of indie and foreign films, a stocked bar, and club-style nights with DJs, comedians, and other performers, it offers up a moviegoing experience unlike any other in the Valley. Combine all that with its recent expansions — including pairing up with AIGA for monthly design-focused documentary screenings, opening its doors to the under-21 crowd, and showing midnight flicks — and you're headed to the multiplex because why?
AMC Esplanade 14

Reclining seats. Swing-over tray. Waitstaff that comes when you push a button. Going out to a movie has never seemed so civilized. AMC renovated and re-opened this theater in August 2011, and the experience is now first-class. Each time at the Dine-In Theater, we felt almost giddy for the first few minutes in our ultra-cushy recliner, and when we got our first cocktail, we giggled out loud. After a lifetime of cheap-to-middlin' movie seats, munching on popcorn and Milk Duds while sipping a Coke we shouldn't have upsized, we find the novelty of being served real food and alcoholic beverages — in a real glass! — very appealing. Another cool thing: Some of the 14 theaters are only for adults over 21 — nixing the possibility that we'll have to see someone take their 6-year-old to the new Saw flick. As the lights dim and the feature presentation begins, we raise a White Russian to AMC.

Pollack Tempe Cinemas

 The last time we took the kids to a movie, we had to take out a second mortgage on the house first. Next time, we figure, it'll be time to sell the second car. Just getting in the door of a first-run theater is a ridiculous prospect — let alone the situation at the snack bar. Which is why we are so grateful to Michael Pollack. Not only does the guy own just about every strip mall in the East Valley (really, people, where would Phoenix be without the strip mall?), he graciously houses the best budget theater in town in one of them. The selection is good (you'll catch the films that have just left the big movie houses) and best of all, movies are $3 — $2 on Tuesdays. Sure, the snack bar is still pricey, but Pollack's got such a crazy collection of movie memorabilia for your family to gawk at that the sensory overload will knock the appetite right out of 'em. The air-conditioning blasts, just like at the fancy joints, and no one will try to up-sell you on your bag of popcorn. Now that's luxury.

Susan Claassen's performance in A Conversation with Edith Head, Actors Theatre's one-woman show about the world's most famous Hollywood costume designer, was the one to beat last season. In this pleasant, quietly entertaining homage to Head, which Claassen co-wrote with Head's biographer, Paddy Calisto, Claassen-as-Head dished about Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn ("She was awful, with that long, skinny neck!"), Hedy Lamarr (who ate constantly, even during fittings), and Bing Crosby (who hated clothes that made him look silly) and allowed us to forget that the renowned designer died in 1981. She prompted the audience with trivia questions and struck poses Edith Head was known for, placing a manicured hand on a hip she repeatedly jutted out into the audience. Claassen moved effortlessly from scripted storytelling to ad libs aimed at her audience, and even those of us not obsessed with the Late Late Show were able to enjoy this warm, witty performance by a fine actress.

iTheatre Collaborative's production of Race was a stunner, thanks in good part to a striking and memorable lead performance by Mike Traylor. Race, a triptych of short acts about lawyers who consider taking on a controversial rape case involving a billionaire, offers a typically Mametian setup. But Traylor's performance was anything but typical. As an embittered black man and a successful lawyer, he delivered a polemic on racism and commentary on the amorality of the legal profession with an amped-up intensity that allowed us to simultaneously hate and admire his character — a tough sell for even as estimable an actor as Mr. Traylor.

Shakespeare's R & J offers the bare bones of Romeo and Juliet (interspersed with other Shakespearean verse) in Joe Calarco's passionate play about four Catholic school boys who read aloud from a banned copy of the bard's most famous tragedy. In a chilly attic that doubles as Verona, these repressed, rep-tie-wearing lads honor an old Shakespearean tradition of males playing female roles as they create an evening's entertainment that's all subtext. And every moment of that subtext was cleverly outlined for even the most illiterate among us, thanks to the finesse and insight of director Damon Dering in last season's production of this difficult, complex piece of theater. It's a rough-and-tumble play that grafts comedy onto a tragic love story and asks that we watch both what these boys are doing with Old Will and what reading his love story is doing for them. And Dering made it all look so easy — and entertained us, besides.

Last season, he (and his Actors Theatre) brought us Geoffrey Nauffts's Tony-nominated and controversial paean to atheism, Next Fall. He brought Peter Sinn Nachtrieb's Hunter Gatherers (about a dinner party at which an animal sacrifice kicks off the evening, followed by sex, violence, wrestling, and dancing). And while so many other theaters were dusting off Gypsy and West Side Story for the umpteenth time, he brought us a stunning Time Stands Still, Donald Margulies' finest play in years. Weiner and company take risks where other companies won't, and for that (and for the bravery that led to Weiner booking this season's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, starring Ron May), we salute him.

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