BAD LUCK BALLET? Ballet Arizona is in danger of getting stuck with the label Bad Luck Ballet.
Last October, the company's sumptuous production of Cinderella was performed almost back to back with Northwest Ballet's version of the same work. The highly regarded Seattle company edged out the smaller Arizona troupe in the reviews. Now, this weekend, Ballet Arizona's annual spring performance in Tucson is going head to head with New York's Paul Taylor Dance Company, one of the best known and most respected of modern dance troupes.
Ballet Arizona artistic director Michael Uthoff is trying to put a good face on this singular piece of bad fortune.
"As luck would have it in this crazy world, we're overlapping with them," he says philosophically. "I love them! Next year we're doing 'Esplanade,' one of his (Taylor's) works in repertory. It's too bad it wasn't the same year. That would have been interesting."
Coincidentally, "Esplanade," a 1975 Taylor work set to music by J.S. Bach, is the first piece the Paul Taylor troupe is performing in Tucson. The renowned company opens at Centennial Hall Thursday, March 30. Besides "Esplanade," the all-Taylor program of four dances includes "Funny Papers," a comical work that debuted in New York last fall to ecstatic reviews. Also on the bill are "Profiles," a 1979 quartet, and "Syzygy," from 1987. Friday night's show is a completely different program of three Taylor dances. It includes the 1991 crowd-pleaser "Company B," choreographed to music by the Andrews Sisters, "Arden Court," from 1981, and 1993's "Spindrift."
Diehard dance fans actually could see both Taylor concerts and then check out Ballet Arizona later in the weekend. Ballet Arizona opens its Spring Dances Friday night at Pima Community College Center for the Arts and then obligingly reprises the same program Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Uthoff's hoping the new works on his program will draw crowds.
"You guys are getting two world premieres," he says. One is a Uthoff duet to Ravel music, called "In g major." The other is company artistic coordinator Donald Dadey's "Centamer Dances," a vigorous work for 14 dancers based on Dadey's recent travels to Central America. Also: "Pas de Déesses," a 1954 Robert Joffrey piece that Uthoff soloed in when he was with the Joffrey Ballet in the 1960s. And "3 Easy Pieces," which Uthoff composed several years ago back when he was director of Hartford Ballet. It has never been seen in Arizona.
Luckily for Uthoff, the Paul Taylor troupe is heading up to the Valley of the Sun after visiting Tucson. The timing will be tight but after his Sunday afternoon matinee, Uthoff plans to dash up to Scottsdale Sunday evening to catch them.
"I hope my dancers will too," he adds.
The thing is, Uthoff doesn't want to miss seeing a company that for 40 years has been at the forefront of modern dance. Taylor burst on the New York scene in the early 50s, a virtually untrained dancer whose great athletic skills were first displayed in the water. As he chronicles in his autobiography Private Domain (Knopf, 1987), he was a champion swimmer at Syracuse University when he was seized by a sudden conviction that dance would be his life.
Others saw it too. Signing on for his first intensive summer dance institute while still in college, two legendary modern dance pioneers, Martha Graham and José Limón, both invited him to join their companies. Taylor went with Graham and also danced for a time with Merce Cunningham. It wasn't long, though, before he found himself criticizing the choreography of the masters. Though he remained a soloist with Graham through 1962, he began his own company in 1954 to test out his unique vision of movement.
As Taylor writes of that period, "I realize that when getting right down to it, there is little in others' work that doesn't irk me, even in Martha's, Merce's, Anna Sokolow's and Sybil Shearer's (my favorites), so I decide to start over from scratch. Some kind of building blocks were needed, some clearly defined ABCs that could be ordered into a structure that would be anti-personality, unpsychological (no Greek goddesses), would achieve a specific effect (no Merce dice decisions) and would have a style free from the cobwebs of time (no ballet)."
Taylor's first efforts to start dance over from scratch were met with overwhelming criticism. One famous critic signed a blank space in the newspaper instead of reviewing an early work. Those days passed, however. Taylor by now has composed more than 100 dances for his company, including such modern classics as "Aureole." His troupe has performed around the globe and on public television, and Taylor himself has won just about every prize from the MacArthur genius award to French knighthood. There's no question the troupe's performance in Tucson is a major local event. But Uthoff's hoping Tucsonans won't forget about the home team.
"Audiences should run out to see them," he says, "and then run out to see us."
Paul Taylor Dance Company performs at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, March 30 and 31, at Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus. Call 621-3364 for information.
Ballet Arizona performs Spring Dances at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 31 and April 1, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 2, at the Pima Community College Center for Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Call 5203811096 for information.
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