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CHAPTER 9

Tucson, Arizona – My First Visit
During my first year as the Met’s chorologist, by an odd set of circumstances I was invited to Tucson, Arizona to head the Tucson Civic Ballet company.

It’s founder, Elizabeth Shaw, had read my feature articles in Dance magazine. Apparently, as an editor for the University Of Arizona Press, she was impressed that a dancer/choreographer would have writing skills as well, and thought I would be an ideal person for the job. In addition to choreographing and staging, I could offer myself as a dancer for the fledgling company as well.

Having time to do this was not a problem. My job at the Met allowed me to take off whenever I wished.

Arriving in Tucson I was greeted at the airport by a group of Vigilantes who put a noose around my neck and cut off my necktie. They certainly frightened me at first. Apparently this was a Tucson tradition of greeting and welcoming celebrities to the wild west! I was given a suite at the rather famous Santa Rita hotel where many film stars had stayed, Tucson being a center for the Hollywood movie industry. The next day I began auditioning local dancers.

Photo: Vigilantes give me a warm welcome at Tucson airport in 1967

There were not that many fully trained dancers in Tucson at that time. I managed to find three or four for the main roles but I had to do with what I had for the rest. That’s when I learned how to tailor choreography to fit the limited abilities of dancers, which was an advantage for me in future years.

I was to produce a full-length “Nutcracker”, the first in the State of Arizona. I had brought costume and scenery designs with me, done by a New York professional and there were teams of Tucson volunteer seamstresses, carpenters and painters, ready to put them all into reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Photo:  First production of Nutcracker in Tucson

When the sold-out performances had finished and I was about to take a plane back to New York, a group rushed out to the airport to show me the morning paper. I was aghast to find a rave review and calling me a ‘genius’ to put this Nutcracker together in the first place.

Nutcrackers proliferate all over America, but there had been none in Arizona until this one.

At this writing in 2006, there are seven annual Christmas Nutcrackers in Tucson, from student recital types to the professional “Tucson Ballet”. The professional “Ballet Arizona”, based in Phoenix, is really a continuation through a long line of directors of the Tucson Civic Ballet, which I started in 1967.

Other ballets I choreographed were ‘The Seasons” and “Round-Up”. Oddly enough, “Round-Up” with its cowboys, Square dancing, Western motifs, even a stage coach, plus the Tucson Symphony playing the Hershey-Kay “Western Symphony” score, was not entirely successful. One would think it would be in the Southwest, but Tucson was already too familiar with cowboys and the western gear to be much impressed. On the other hand, when I later staged it in Kansas City with the Kansas City Symphony, it was
a tremendous success.

 
Photo: A pas de deux from “The Seasons”

Alice In Wonderland

My Nutcracker not only had received a rave review but I was called “the man of the hour’. This all went by un-noticed back at the Met, but it carried me along for a long time.

To give me something to read on the plane back to New York I was handed a huge book on Arizona history that I kept dipping into and dreaming about how, when I finally was ready to throw off my dancing shoes for good, I would move to Tucson and settle there permanently. In spite of the hustle and demands of Nutcracker, I had somehow found time to fall in love with the desert of Arizona.

While busy with the Met’s 1968 Winter season I kept getting enticing phone calls from Tucson. Certain people, having been bitten by the ballet bug, were primping to bring me back for another go.  April arrived and the Met gave me another free month to return out west to do whatever it was that I did, they were never quite sure.

Tucson went all out for this one, my two act “Alice In Wonderland”. This was not the version I danced back in England with Ballets Minerva. Not even the one I had choreographed in Oregon a few years before, but an entirely new approach, using three Mahler symphonies.

In later years I staged this for regional companies all over the country, but this first Tucson production must have had something extra to catch the eye other than its spectacular costumes and ingenious sets. The local KUAT TV station decided to blossom its first color telecast with it and I had to beg the Met for two more weeks in order to adapt it for their cameras.

Photo: The tea party scene. Jane Crawford as Alice, myself as The Mad Hatter.

Then came the biggest surprise of all. It won the National Broadcast Media Award! I suspected not for the dancing but for the technical camera work such as Alice falling down the rabbit hole, or growing to gigantic size and then shrinking to three inches.

 

 

 

 

Photo Left: Jane Crawford as Alice, myself as The White Rabbit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Photo: I’m setting up the scene with Alice and Humpty Dumpty. Director Terry Thure looks on.



Photo: Alice will be crowned by the Red Queen in this finale of ALICE

Agnes DeMille And Her “Rodeo”
Agnes DeMille’s work had always impressed me. As a youngster I read her book ‘Dance To The Piper” and like the book on Nijnsky, I read it over and over. Like her, I had gone to England to seek an outlet for whatever talent I might have. I even continued to read it there as it gave me an American identity that I sometimes felt I was losing.

Now that I was a regular visitor to the Southwest I could appreciate her ballet “Rodeo” all the more. As my April visit to Tucson coincided with the annual Fiesta De Los Vaqueros, I foolishly thought of doing her “Rodeo” and wrote to her about the possibilities of me staging it. In exchange for the rights to do it, I volunteered to notate it, free of charge.

She wrote back, horrified. She would have to know the company she said, and besides, after she left the role, no one else has been really able to do it right. She practically accused me of wanting to steal it . When I wrote back that surely, as a choreologist my job was to protect the work of choreographers, not to steal them, she apologized and explained that she had been stolen from so much before. She also wanted to meet me and have a talk. I suspected that the fact I was in the Southwest and wanted to do a ballet on cowboy themes must have intrigued her. At the time she was opening a new musical with her choreography in Boston, and as it turned out to be a bomb, I felt it was no time to visit her. The invitation went nowhere.

Instead of “Rodeo” I choreographed my own ballet called “Round-Up” to Hershey-Kay’s score for Western Symphony. It was foolish of me to think of “Rodeo” in the first place as the Tucson company was not in any sense able to do that. “Round-Up was a better choice. I was able to use local color. Native Americans, a stage coach, a shoot-out, and a genuine square dance with caller.


Photo: ‘Girl From Back-East’ and myself as the Saloon Gambler in “Round-Up”


Photo: Jim McWhorter as The Head Wrangler. Rita Walgamuth as the Ballerina in a comic pas de deux from “Round-Up”


Photo: Buckaroo Dance. Champion Roper [Neil Cowhey] in “Round-Up”

 

 

 

Photo Left: Jim McWhorter and Jane Crawford in rehearsal


 

 

 

Photo Below: Finale of “Round-Up”

Coppelia
After “Nutcracker”, “Coppelia” was the next biggest production. I followed the Royal Ballet version, which is about as authentic as you can get. Joan Benesh had danced with Sadler’s Wells Ballet which later became the Royal Ballet. She had notated it - the complete three acts - while she and Rudolph were going together and inventing their system of notation. I had it straight from the source.

I had really wonderful costumes and scenery for this production. The 2nd act looked a bit like Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, so it said in one review. I played Dr. Coppelius, making myself up to look very, very old.

Photo Left: Leigh Ann Barber as Swanilda. Me as Dr. Coppelius.
Photo Right: Here I am drugging Franz [Richard France] as Swanilda pretends to be a mechanical doll in the 2nd act.

I stage an opera … “Pagliacci”
From my childhood in Braintree, when I listened on a broken down radio to the Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcasts, alone in that tiny wing of a house, I developed a love of opera. During my first starving years in New York City, studying at the Met Ballet school and supering in the operas for $2.00 a performance I felt to be part of the Met. When I was finally a regular dancing member and then the Met’s official choreologist, it seemed a dream had come true. Now I was being asked to stage the opera “Pagliacci” for the embryonic Arizona Opera with the Tucson Symphony, Gregory Millar, conductor.

I was already familiar with this opera having heard it many times. I wanted Canio - the leader of a traveling troupe of players - to make his entrance in a wagon pulled by a live donkey. We got the donkey with no problems, but no amount of pushing and pulling would get him to enter the stage door! Then, the scene designer brought in by Millar from Illinois appeared to know absolutely nothing about stage design and kept asking me questions of what he should do. I looked in horror as he tore a giant hole in the center of the sky drop to make an entrance for some singers. But the opera was a big success.

The Arizona Opera went on to become a leading opera company in the USA and for which, many years later, I became its resident choreographer.

A week after the opera finished - this was a two week music festival.- I was to present an evening of ballets, again with the Tucson Symphony. I decided to choreograph Handel’s “Water Music” and do a repeat of “Round-Up”. As an audience getter, I needed something else.


The First “Brooms Of Mexico”
I had read a book the year before, “Brooms Of Mexico” by Al Gordon with illustrations by Ted DeGrazia. DeGrazia was an internationally known Southwest artist who lived in Tucson. In fact, a museum devoted to his work now exists in Tucson. I set about transferring the book to the stage with costumes taken from the book illustrations.

The music was a commissioned score by Robert McBride, who had written for Martha Graham. He was then teaching at the University of Arizona. Friends back in New York, on hearing my tape of this music told me, if I could choreograph anything to it I would indeed be a genius! But it had already been arranged so I had to use it.

With DeGrazia, McBride and the book author, Al Gordon present on opening night, the house was filled. I had put in a scene with the well known Southwestern folk singer, Travis Edmonson.

Photo: Folk singer, Travis Edmonson in “Brooms Of Mexico”

There was cheering and standing ovations for those four, but the choreographer was ignored. I didn’t mind as it was a terrible ballet anyway. Many years later I revived it with a New Age musical score, massive scenery and authentic Mexican dancing. During those intervening years, I also may have improved somewhat as a choreographer as well.

Photo Below: Here I took Travis' guitar and danced a solo in "Brooms of Mexico"

More upsetting was a dancer I hired for “Coppelia” the year before. He claimed he had danced with the Royal Danish Ballet, but this was a bit doubtful. Besides, his dance ability was mediocre. At any rate I hired him to dance the leading role of Franz. It was a wrong choice. During the “Coppelia” run he ripped the beautifully designed girl’s costumes apart, saying they were all wrong. During the cast party I overheard him telling the dancers that he would come back the following year and give them some really “professional” choreography. Since the “Coppelia” they were doing was an exact replica of the Royal Ballet version with choreography by the great Arthur Saint Leon, I wondered what choreography could be more professional.
He came to the festival performance after writing a letter to the conductor saying he should be the ballet director. The poison-pen letter contained dangerous threats to the entire company. The police were alerted and filled the house waiting for him to make any menacing move. He was too busy booing everything loudly. I was dancing in “Water Music” and as the Saloon Gambler in “Round-Up” so he gave me double boos. The rest of the audience was aware of this troublemaker and seeing the police stationed around, knew he must be the cause. In response, they only cheered and shouted bravos all the more to drown him out. Being black, he claimed it was racism but it was hardly that. It was wrenching for us all. A year later I ran into him in New York at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library. He greeted me as if nothing had happened - likely suffering from some mental disorder.

Just as the festival was about to end, word came that the Met in New York had gone on strike. As usual, it was agitated by the orchestra musicians. Just across from the Met on Lincoln Center plaza, the New York City Ballet had plenty of strikes to deal with.

The City Ballet was headed by the great choreographer, George Balanchine. In the midst of one long strike that shut down the City Ballet for months, he angrily announced that people come to the ballet to see the dancing and not to hear the music but, heavily unionized, the orchestra always won.  However, ballet can make do with recorded music, not so with opera.  During the strike, the longest in the Met’s history, Dame Alicia resigned and some of the dancers left, never to return.

I wasn’t sad about this temporary break. My life seemed to be made up of these complex pathways on which I moved from one phase to the next. For some of us, our paths are wide, smooth, and clearly marked. Mine never were. I had to determine where the next step would land me.

Until the Met would re-open I decided to return to England where I had found so much fulfillment. England was always good to me. I hopped on a flight to London.

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