Step Back

Choreographer Michael Uthoff returns to Tucson with a new troupe.

Michael Uthoff sits in a Tucson café, happily digging into a hearty sandwich. The choreographer's got a couple of reasons for his self-evident cheer. Pain-free after back surgery for a ruptured disk, he's feeling great physically, he says, but what makes him downright euphoric is that he's back in the dance biz.

This week, the former artistic director of Ballet Arizona debuts his brand-new Michael Uthoff Dance Theatre. The first concert took place in Scottsdale Wednesday, and the second will be this Friday night in Tucson, at the Pima Community College Center for the Arts.

"We did a preview in Miami," Uthoff says gleefully. "People were floored."

Dancing a program of all-Uthoff choreography will be 20 young Miami dancers, all of them either advanced students at the New World School of the Arts, where Uthoff has been teaching, or members of the city's Dance Now Ensemble.

"The beauty of the school is that it's incredibly diverse. The dancers are African-American, Cuban, Jamaican. And they dance with incredible power and gusto. ... They're thrilled to death to be coming here."

He's hired the dancers just for these shows, he says, and he may well hire a whole other group next year if his Dance Theatre makes a go of it. MUDT, as he's calling it, will be a pickup company, with dancers hired to perform particular shows, rather than contracted for long periods of time. His idea, he says, is "to be artistically creative, to showcase my work and not have to support a company year round."

Uthoff has already done the year-round company thing. Years ago, a dancer with José Limón and then the Joffrey Ballet, he was artistic director of the Hartford Ballet for 20 years. He came out West in 1992 to head up Ballet Arizona. During his seven years at the state ballet company, Uthoff won kudos for restaging such nearly lost classics as "The Green Table" by the German Expressionist Kurt Jooss. He also celebrated regional cultures in his new works, hiring Native American and Mexican composers, and even, in "Day of the Dead," creating a full-length story ballet touching on Mexican immigration. But his tenure ended unhappily in 1999, amid conflicts with the board and financial woes that very nearly shut down the company. (Ballet Arizona, not seen in Tucson since December 2001, has scheduled a concert at Casino del Sol on April 25.)

Uthoff resigned, but came back for six months at the board's request to offer artistic advice. Still, he says, "It hurt me a lot. I was very pained, very burned."

He took a real-estate course, and began selling property to make a living. (He still does, he says, to keep himself afloat.) Eventually, though, "some friends in Miami invited me to teach and to choreograph at New School of the Arts. And from there I've been doing a lot of freelance. I've barely been home in Scottsdale for the last 18 months." In January, for instance, he choreographed Stravinsky's "A Soldier's Tale" on the troupe Andanza at the Casals Festival in Puerto Rico; in April, he'll be working with the Connecticut Ballet and the Zig-Zag Ballet. All of the dancers he works with, he says, are potential future dancers in MUDT.

Friday night's concert showcases a collection six Uthoff works, some new, some old.

"Most of my work has a theatrical dimension," he says, "with a story, or at least a narrative." Uthoff has an eclectic dance background--he was the son of refugee German modern dancers who founded the Chilean National Ballet and he himself was a modern dancer who switched to ballet early in his career. His pieces mirror that tangled history, ranging from ballet to modern and even tango.

The opener, "Sinfonia Danzante," is a "fragment of an older piece." Set to the fourth movement of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, it features 14 dancers, with the women on pointe. "It's an introduction to the dancers' energy and youthfulness, and the variety of the company."

"Dances of an Exhibition, Magritte" is a duet Uthoff choreographed last year to cello music by John Corigliano. Though it's ballet-like, "It's like a Magritte painting, surreal," Uthoff says. The young dancers are Mariya Dashkina, from Ukraine, and Karell Laquan Williams ("I think Alvin Ailey will take him any minute").

Algeria Bridges, a "beautiful African-American woman who carries herself very well," assumes the regal role of a Spanish princess in "Pavane for a Dead Infanta," set to the Ravel music of the same title. Four other dancers are her courtiers. Ballet Arizona fans might recognize "in g major," a ballet duet Uthoff created for the company's Yen-Li Chen Zhang and her husband Qisheng Zhang.

"This was when they were getting married, and in four hours we did the whole duet," he says. "It's gorgeous. These two kids (Mayra Alexandra Gonzalez and Jony Philostin) do it differently but they do it very well." This piece is also set to Ravel, the Piano Concerto in G Major.

Following intermission is a brand-new duet, "Dances of Alone," which moves through music by three composers, from Debussy to Ginastera to Victor Jara, "a Chilean folk singer who was killed in the military coup." Danced by Hannah Baumgarten and Diego Salterini, it's about "two people who are alone but not lonely. They do the dance and long for one another. They come together as mature people in the end. It's poignant."

The 20-minute finale features a cast of 11 moving to the tango music of Astor Piazzolla.

"I was commissioned by New World to do this for them a year and a half ago," Uthoff explains. "It has been a staple for them, for galas." The piece's four movements follow a crowd of young people through their Saturday night, as they get together around 9 p.m., pair off during the night, and finally go home at dawn. The couples section dips into ballet, featuring two duets, with the women on point. The entire cast reunites at the end and "finishes with a bang."

Uthoff is tentatively optimistic about his new venture.

"I hope we'll be seeing this each year, but is it the right time?" he asks. "Politically, it's an apprehensive time. I hope people will understand what I'm trying to do, but it might be just a nice dream."