He had the singular good fortune to meet José Limón, the great modern-dance choreographer. Uthoff, the son of refugee German dancers who founded the Chilean National Ballet, first studied with Limón at Juilliard, and then accepted an invitation to join Limón Dance Company. A native of Mexico and childhood resident of Tucson (see "Embracing the Dance," Feb. 27, 2003), Limón was then in his late 50s, still choreographing, staging works and mentoring young dancers like Uthoff.
"I did two years with Limón from 1963 to 1965," Uthoff said last week. "He was a total inspiration for me. He was an incredible man, a real gentleman and a great artist."
This weekend, Uthoff returns the favor. His company, Michael Uthoff Dance Theatre, will open its Saturday concert in Tucson with "There Is a Time," a classic Limón dance from 1956.
According to Uthoff, "It's a gorgeous, gorgeous work, based on Ecclesiastes," the familiar Bible text that counsels "to every thing there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun." A large piece for a dozen dancers, it's set to the music of composer Norman dello Joio and divided into 10 sections, evoking "all the times--a time to be silent, a time to speak and so on," Uthoff said.
He praised the work as "archaic Limón ... it represents a time in the 1950s in American modern dance."
The piece also represents a new time in Uthoff's career. After dancing with Limón and then the Joffrey Ballet, for 20 years, Uthoff directed Hartford Ballet (where he staged Limón's most famous work, "The Moor's Pavane"). He came to the Southwest in 1992 to run Ballet Arizona. Critics and audiences liked his work, but he had a bitter parting with the troubled company in 1999. For several years, he suffered what he calls a "withdrawal period," avoiding dance entirely and selling real estate to earn his living.
Then Danny Lewis, an old Juilliard classmate and former artistic assistant to Limón, enticed him to return to the world of dance. Lewis runs the New World School of the Arts in Miami, and he invited Uthoff to get back to work.
"I started doing things there four or five times a year," Uthoff said, guest-choreographing and teaching the school's talented young dancers. But he was itching to get back to staging concerts. He hit on the idea of creating a recurring temporary dance company, and started Michael Uthoff Dance Theatre, a pick-up troupe that performs, disbands and re-forms as needed. The company made its debut last year, drawing its dancers from New World and Miami's Dance Now! Ensemble.
"The beauty of it is that I can reduce my costs, and give these dancers exposure," Uthoff said. "I don't have to worry about (year-round) payroll. But this is not a school performance in any sense. These are professional and semi-professional dancers."
This year's troupe has some of the same dancers as last--a strong coterie of African Americans, white Americans, Jamaicans and Cubans who reflect Miami's bubbling ethnic stew. But a few stars from last year have moved on up. Karell Laquan Williams, a strong young black dancer, has gone on to Juilliard on a full scholarship.
Last year's MUDT Tucson premiere was a showcase for Uthoff's own choreography, which veers between ballet and modern dance and heads for points in between. This time around, the concert features three Uthoff pieces but is loosely structured around a Juilliard-Limón theme. The dancers have gotten their training from the Limón-oriented Lewis, and Uthoff has bracketed his own three works with the Limón dance at the beginning, and a Robert Battle at the end. Up-and-coming choreographer Battle easily fits into the theme. A longtime dancer with David Parsons, he, too, got his training at New World, and later graduated from Juilliard.
The Uthoff works include "Reflections on the Water," a 1970s ballet danced by five women en pointe.
"It's quiet and personal, about being in the woods by yourself, and looking at yourself in the pond," he said. The piece is performed to a recording of Debussy piano works.
"Ask Not" is a lively Uthoff take on the '60s. Its four male dancers do athletic jumps and turns to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Buffalo Springfield. The original piece is 33 minutes long, but in the interest of brevity, the dancers will perform excerpts. Influenced by ballet, "it's modern, but pseudo-classic."
"Summerday," a brand-new Uthoff piece, premiered several weeks ago in Miami. Five women and one man, dressed in white, dance under bright lights representing the summer sky. The music is recorded piano compositions by Brahms, Schumann and Chopin.
The final dance on the program is Battle's "Battlefield." Tucson audiences got a taste of this young choreographer's sharp-angled work at last week's concert by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which danced his demanding "Juba."
"Battlefield," performed to a percussion score, is "absolutely vibrant. It's exciting and physical," Uthoff said. His athletic young dancers, he boasts, manage to pull it off.
"I'm glad I was a dancer back then, in the '60s," he added. "Dancers just keep getting better. I couldn't keep up with them now."