Ballet Arizona Pays Homage To The Russian/American Master
By Margaret Regan
THERE'S ONE moment in Michael Uthoff's life he'd change now if he could.
"I was offered a position in New York City Ballet with George Balanchine," says Uthoff, the artistic director of Ballet Arizona, whose dancers this weekend will perform an all-Balanchine concert in Tucson. "If I had my life to live over again, I would take it."
Married and the father of a small child at the time, Uthoff turned Balanchine down so that he could dance in another troupe with his wife. But Uthoff did get several chances to work with the choreographer whom many rank as one of the greatest artists of the century.
"I worked with him in some rehearsals when I was with the Joffrey, and I watched him work at New York City Ballet rehearsals," Uthoff remembers. "I saw his creative process. The man had such experience behind him. Even if it was a bad ballet, it was always well crafted. He had definite ideas of how he wanted things to look."
This weekend Tucson balletomanes will get a chance to see the way Balanchine wanted dance to look, helped by Patricia Neary, a Balanchine protégé who set two of his works on Ballet Arizona. Fresh from an enthusiastic reception up in Phoenix, where the company is based, the Balanchine concert represents a risky programming departure. Last season Uthoff played it safe in Tucson, where he's had trouble building an audience, by offering nothing but old-fashioned romantic ballets, and saving more cutting-edge productions for Phoenix.
Basically Balanchine gives the Old Pueblo a short course in 20th-century ballet. A concert of three dances by Mr. B., who died in 1983, it charts his transition from the old-school tradition of his Russian homeland to his innovative "neoclassical" American choreography.
"Our dancers will perform three masterworks in two hours," Uthoff says. "All three of these dances are on the list of 10 best dances of the century."
The evening opens with "Serenade," a 1930s piece for 19 female dancers and six male dancers set to Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings. The closest of the three pieces to the Russian tradition, and the first work Balanchine composed in America, it's a thing of "romantic beauty and classicism," Uthoff says. The big work was first performed in Hartford, where Balanchine was biding his time before bursting on the New York scene, making plans with the late Lincoln Kirstein to form the New York City Ballet. ("He saw Hartford, turned around and went to New York City the next day," jokes Uthoff, who himself spent years directing the Hartford Ballet.)
"Four Temperaments," from the 1940s, features six men and 12 women. Danced to the music of Paul Hindemuth, it hints at some of the radical innovations of the mature Balanchine.
"Where 'Serenade' had come from the traditions of Russia, with 'Four Temperaments' you begin to see the edge of a man living in New York City. The dancers come with a different point of view. You can see the high kicks, the arabesques that changed standards forever."
The third and final work, "Rubies," was composed in the 1960s as part of a longer work. By then, Uthoff points out, the New York City Ballet had moved into new headquarters in Lincoln Center. To attract crowds large enough to fill up the ornate space, big spectacles were de rigueur. But "Mr. B. was not keen on evening-length works," Uthoff says, so he strung together a trio of dances, "Emeralds," "Rubies" and "Diamonds," into the longer Jewels. Set to a score by Balanchine's fellow Russian Stravinsky, "Rubies" is full of jazzy turns danced at a fast pace.
"These two Russians were getting covered in Americana," Uthoff says. "Balanchine had a new group of dancers that were much more American."
For Uthoff, the progression of the dances parallels the progress made by the dancers of his company, who now number about 22. (They'll be joined by 10 apprentices for the concert.)
"I always said I would not consider the company a company until after five years. Now we are in the sixth year," says Uthoff of his position as artistic director. "You'll see it. The dancers are trained, they're in focus, they're committed. They're conscious of the honor bestowed on them to dance these works."
Ballet Arizona will perform Basically Balanchine at the PCC Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road, at 8 p.m. Friday, October 10, and at 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, October 11. A pre-performance chat between ticket holders and company dancers begins one hour before curtain. Tickets are $15, $25 and $33 for adults, $13.50, $23 and $30 for seniors, $7.50, $12.50 and $16.50 for kids 12 and under. Student rush tickets, subject to availability, cost $7.50 one hour before curtain. Advance tickets are on sale at Dillard's, 1-800-638-4253, or at Ballet Arizona toll-free at 1-888-3BALLET.
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