Canyon Call

A Harrowing Plane Ride, Images Carved In Stone, And A Haunting Native Flute Are The Stuff Of 'Legends.'

By Margaret Regan

WHEN MICHAEL UTHOFF came West seven years ago to become artistic director of Ballet Arizona, he pledged to make dances inspired by his new environment; or as he puts it, "to try to subjugate my artistry to the nature and culture that surrounds us."

That's how he found himself in trouble in a tiny airplane on a dark night in Canyon de Chelly a few years back. He and composer Brent Michael Davids, a Mohican transplanted to Arizona, were scoping out some of Arizona's natural wonders, in hopes of doing a site-specific performance in a canyon or on a cliff.

Review "We got together with a guy who had a pilot's license to look for a site," Uthoff remembers. "We had a very interesting airplane ride."

The pilot tried to take off in the evening from Canyon de Chelly, but "he couldn't get altitude. We had to return in the pitch black."

After a scare, the group did get back to earth, guided only by the distant lights of a stadium, Uthoff says. But their troubles weren't over. The next day, finally aloft, the plane ran out of fuel. And as they approached Phoenix, the red warning lights on the plane's instrument panel kept coming on. There was a problem with the landing gear.

The controllers in Phoenix got the plane down safely. "It's one of those things you can laugh about now," Uthoff says. For all the group's woes, the envisioned site-specific piece never did come off. Nevertheless, the trip did yield another ballet, to be performed this weekend in The Legends: Native Spirits in Motion concert at Pima Community College.

"Voices in Stone," a collaboration by Uthoff, Davids and Hopi poet Ramson Lomatewama, is inspired by the Native American petroglyphs the choreographer and composer saw during their week-long trip from the Grand Canyon to Canyon de Chelly to the New River near Phoenix. The petroglyphs, chipped into rock all over the Southwest, typically depict humans, animals and abstract designs. They're often found near water sources and good hunting grounds, though archaeologists disagree whether they were intended as signals or simply represent the human compulsion to make marks on the land. The 1994 work, to be performed by some 28 dancers, doesn't resolve any controversies.

"It's not an interpretation," Uthoff says. "But it conveys the kind of image the figures give us, what they reflect."

The other two pieces in the concert, the season closer for Ballet Arizona, continue the regional theme. Each is a collaboration with a well-known artist who never before worked with the troupe--composer R. Carlos Nakai and choreographer Moses Pendleton. Both of the new works premiered in the company's Phoenix concerts over the last two weekends.

Nakai, the Navajo-Ute composer and flutist, was commissioned to write new music for "Inside of Me Things Are Moving," another Uthoff dance.

The title, Uthoff says, is "a loose translation of a Navajo word for inner peace and quiet." The work knits together common themes running through traditional Native American origin stories. The first part is about water, earth and sun; the second deals with the human life cycle. Like "Voices in Stone," the new work is danced by the entire company.

Pendleton is a co-founder of two highly regarded modern dance companies, Pilobolus and MOMIX. Both troupes are famous for their high-voltage athleticism, and Uthoff says Pendleton "challenged the physicality of our dancers to the umpteenth degree." It's another large group work--23 dancers perform.

Pendleton's original idea was to do a work based on Indian imagery from New England, where Pilobolus is based, but when he came out to Arizona, "he fell in love with the desert, with its flora and fauna," Uthoff says. "He's taken images from our desert and brought them to life in a striking way." And he gave his piece a fine Arizona name: "Opus Cactus."

Ballet Arizona performs The Legends: Native Spirits in Motion at 8 p.m. Friday, May 7, and at 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 8, at the PCC Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets range from $17.50 to $37.50, with discounts for seniors and kids 12 and under. For tickets and information, call 1-888-3BALLET; or call the PCC box office at 206-6988. TW

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