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Ballet It Be

With the Kennedy reference in its title and its promise to choreograph "the hits of a generation," Ballet Arizona's new work--"Ask Not . . ."--could easily have been a shameless grab at baby-boomer bucks.

"There's a generation out there who should have very vivid memories, who are the new powers in society, who should go out and find out about this work and be surprised that 'My God, I didn't know dance could do this.' And yes, if we appeal to them, I have a success financially," admits Michael Uthoff, the show's creator and artistic director for Ballet Arizona.

But that's not his point.
"The ballet is about emotional elements that affected me as an artist while I was growing up," he says.

The Sixties were about emotion more than anything, and Uthoff lived them as a student in New York and as a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet and the Jose Limon Dance Company.

Some of what we think of as the Sixties actually took place in the early Seventies, and the decade's beliefs and politics--however deeply held--were equally off center. It billed itself as a generation of peace and love when it was really a time of war and riots and assassinations and generational discord and sex.

Accordingly, Uthoff's version is ironic, occasionally humorous and generally unexpected. He has avoided the obvious notes--the Beatles, the Doors--and instead chooses songs that create moods he can work with or against. "Colour My World," by the perpetually perky Petula Clark, for example, becomes the backdrop for a civil rights procession. "Paint It Black" becomes a dark and angry rant with visual references to the rock musical Hair. Sonny and Cher's vacuous love song "I Got You Babe" features three couples in costumes straight out of Laugh-In "doing their own thing," which essentially means smacking each other around in a loveless but very funny manner.

The Sixties, after all, were when couples stopped dancing together and instead stood apart in self-expression and self-absorption. Uthoff might have filled his ballet with predictable balletic stylings of the frug and the twist and the mashed potato. Instead, he has used them sparingly. In one scene, two remarkably buff and scantily clad dancers perform a pas de deux to Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused." They move with a tai chi slowness, while in the wings, the corps dances with an arrhythmic flailing that is Woodstocklike, but in its context seems more to represent souls writhing in hell.

In other words, Uthoff is not attempting to re-create an updated Hullabaloo dance party.

"There's a tendency in America to popularize everything," he says. "But the truth of the matter is that dance is never going to appeal to everybody in the same way that football is never going to be a game for me.

"I've always said that if we could put a betting window in the theater where you could bet on the dancer in the red costume or the blue costume, or if you could measure how high they jump, all of a sudden the Americans would say, 'Ah, this is good!'"

Uthoff, 53, is tall and stately, with graying blond hair and an easy manner. He speaks with a sophisticated Spanish accent, which he claims he can thicken to sound downright foreign if the situation demands.

He was born in Santiago, Chile. His parents, Lola Botka and Ernst Uthoff, had been members of the Jooss Ballet in Germany. As Hitler came to power, they immigrated to Chile and founded the Chilean National Ballet. Given the physical and emotional demands of the art form, Uthoff's parents tried to discourage him from studying ballet. But when he was 17, he fell in love with a girl in his parents' ballet company and insisted on dancing. A year later, he was on a plane to New York to study at the School of American Ballet and he went on to the Martha Graham Studio and the Juilliard School. He was invited to dance with the Jose Limon Dance Company, and within two years of arriving in New York, and scarcely three years into his ballet studies, he was a dancer with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet.

He burned brightly--and flamed out. His artistic spirit carried him further perhaps than he should have gone, the mind saying "I can do that," the body saying "Maybe not."

"It went very fast," he says. "I got hurt very fast."
He shattered his knees and slipped two disks in his spine. He had to have cortizone injections in order to dance.

And so, in 1972, on his retirement as a dancer, he moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to establish a ballet company and a reputation as a choreographer. To date, he has choreographed nearly 100 productions. In 1992, after 20 years in Hartford, he came to Phoenix to take over Ballet Arizona.  

When Uthoff left Chile in 1962, that country was still a pastoral backwater. So he viewed New York with the eyes of an ingenue.

"I was as square as they come," he says.
He was, however, aware of the politics swirling around him, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassinations of the Kennedys and of Martin Luther King Jr., the race riots, the Vietnam war.

"I was in America, an incredible country," he says. "But I couldn't understand the savagery of the system."

Nor could he understand the racial battles of the age. There were no blacks in Chile; there was one in the Joffrey. Uthoff recalls a day in Virginia when a group of dancers was refused service in a restaurant because of the one African American in its midst. Townsmen ominously blocked the door of the cafe, so the dancers formed a phalanx around their black colleague, women on the outside in the hope that the local toughs were less likely to strike them.

Once, in Alabama, Uthoff attended a movie with that same black dancer. Theater patrons got up and moved away.

"It's very uncomfortable when you are sitting in a dark place and you can see faces that are supposed to be looking at the movie and they're staring at you," he says.

Uthoff's reaction to those experiences in "Ask Not . . ." is the uplifting portrayal of a civil rights march danced to "Colour My World." But then the mood darkens with an angry rave to the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and a funeral procession for a Vietnam casualty performed to "This Old House" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

During the height of the Vietnam war, Uthoff was drafted and reported for his physical at the same New York induction center that Arlo Guthrie made famous in "Alice's Restaurant." Like Guthrie, Uthoff lied to the inducting doctors, saying that he had ongoing psychiatric problems; he was classified 4-F.

Such behavior may seem ungrateful in the current revisionist romanticizing of the war, but it was a prototypical Sixties reaction to a war that was seen as unjust and that was largely fought by blue-collar boys and minorities who didn't have the same escape hatches available to such reinvented patriots as Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton.

The dance community of the Sixties that Uthoff remembers was politically engaged and highly emotive. Uthoff recalls one choreographer who demanded rage and anger of the dancers.

"After you worked with her three times, you thought, 'How much angrier can I get?'" he jokes.

Yet, he concedes, "We were more committed. We came to dance because of the level of the art form. Sometimes I feel [dancers today] come to dance because there is a job offer. We had to invent ourselves, literally."

And he insists that his own dancers be aware of the world.
"If you live your life in a little castle and don't see what's going on around you, that your friends are dying of AIDS, or if you don't see a beautiful sunset, you can't possibly create a mood," he says. "You may have a beautiful body and move well onstage . . . [but] oh, what a boring existence. I challenge the dancers to know what's happening. That is perhaps the one definition of the Sixties: We were involved. Every member of every dance company was aware of what's happening."

While trying to convey that awareness to his dancers for "Ask Not . . .", he came up against a generation gap. Most of the dancers were not yet born in the Sixties, so Uthoff gave history lessons. He forced them to do research. So they could see the true faces of anger and horror, he showed them pictures from the Kent State shootings and the famous shot of the terrified Vietnamese girl running down a road, her clothes burned off by napalm.

"Ask Not . . ." is not the first ballet that Uthoff has created to memorialize an era.

While he danced in New York during the Sixties and Seventies, his own homeland was transformed from the freest nation in Latin America into a morass of oppression and political violence. When Uthoff returned there in 1984, he was once again an outsider looking in.

"I couldn't conceive of a country without laughter," he says. "It was unbelievable the oppression that you felt in the streets. You didn't tell a joke. You didn't say anything."

He had been invited to Chile to stage a ballet for the Chilean national company. He titled it Murmurs of the Stream, and for the score he chose performances of popular Chilean folk music from the Sixties and Seventies. Many of the performers of those pieces were either exiled or dead.  

"They were songs that extolled the qualities of the people," he says, "not songs that said 'down with the military.' And I came up with a work that was so powerful, so absolutely gorgeous that it had people crying in the hall. I was basically saying, 'I cry to my country.'"

When the Chilean government realized what Uthoff was doing, he was told that the performance would not take place. Uthoff asked that they at least see it before they passed judgment, so he put on a show for the government censors, four men and a woman.

"By the end of the work, three of the men were crying," Uthoff claims. "The other man was unbelievably excited. The only woman was stoic, and I thought, 'Oh, shit.'"

The panel deliberated for an hour and a half and decided that the show could go on, but the musicians' names had to be deleted from the program, which was of little concern to Uthoff.

According to Uthoff, the audience stood up after the final curtain and sang the Chilean national anthem.

North American audiences, however, are more resistant to seeing protest and "meaning" sneaking out of the realm of modern dance and into classical ballet.

"They don't want to go to the theater unexpecting," Uthoff says. "They want to know exactly what it's going to be. They don't want to be made fools of. They don't want to experience the thought process of discovering something on their own."

And so he had no idea as to how his audiences would react to "Ask Not . . .". He hoped they would find it "far more entertaining than watching swans on parade onstage." On opening night, they reacted with a standing ovation.

Ballet Arizona's production of "Ask Not . . ." continues through Sunday,
March 16, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Calendar.


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