Visual Arts

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.

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Michael Kiefer