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CHAPTER 24

Tucson Becomes My New Home.
Leaving New York was not difficult. All of my teachers and many of my friends had died or had left New York for good. I felt like a remnant.

It was during the heat of mid-summer that I arrived in Tucson. It had become a sprawling boomtown but after seven years living in the Bronx it seemed paradise to me.

Tucsonans had already settled in for the long, dry heat of summer. To catch a little nip of cool the drill is to stay out of the sun, wear a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen and loose, light clothing, drink plenty of water and never leave your pets or candy bars in the car; a trade off for Arizona’s truly wonderful winter climate and a zone that’s relatively free of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, typhoons, and tsunamis.

Photo: Catalina Mountains viewed from my house

The summer heat, unbearable to most, didn’t bother me in the least. I went for long hikes in the mountains and canyons and on the hottest days, often lying prostrate on a rock in full submission to the blazing sun like a sacrificial victim. Birds hovered over and critters gathered around me in disbelief.

I did miss the feel of the Old Pueblo that I knew during the 60s. However, if it had remained the same during all those years it would be stagnant. Instead, it embraced an influx of people from many nationalities and backgrounds.

But I needed wheels, and fast. My first Tucson car was a Mercury Tracer, brand new. This must have started a trend as from then on, with cars, I never bought anything but new.

Photo: My Mercury Tracer in Old Tucson parking lot

 

 

Sonya
Sonya was the love of my life. I found her at the Humane Society. She was a six-month old Terrier-mix. According to all the rules of dog ownership I had her immediately sterilized and started teaching her indoor manners. She was a born cover-girl and easily made it to the cover of “Humanely Speaking” magazine.

Winter brought one day of snow, well, actually it was only a morning’s worth before it all quickly melted away. Snow, no matter how scarce, is most unusual for the desert. So rare, I had to take a picture of it.
 

Photo left: Sonya, the cover girl

 

 

 

 

London
All settled in as a Tucson resident, I took a whirlwind trip back to London for the holidays. Being accustomed to flying to Europe from New York in five hours, the long flight from Tucson seemed endless. I stayed with Charles who had moved to Stevenage in Hertfordshire, a half-hour train ride from King’s Cross Station in London.

Nearby Stevenage is Hatfield House where Elizabeth the First was residing when she became Queen and the home of Lord Bulwer-Lytton, the English novelist, playwright and politician and the author of “Last Days Of Pompeii”. E.M Forester, who wrote “A Passage To India”, “A Room With A View” and many others which were made into remarkable films by Merchant-Ivory, lived in Stevenage.

Other than visiting these places there was nothing much to do in Stevenage. Walks, pubs, reading. Charles had retired from the banking business to this town yet I never knew why he moved away from all the attractions of London life. So, after a week or two it was time to leave the severe Winter of England and return to the warmth of Arizona.

Photo: Stevenage Muscovy Duck in Stevenage, New Town park


 

 

Arizona Balalaika Orchestra ( website with videos and pictures )
 

Just after returning to Tucson, someone told me there was a local Russian balalaika orchestra performing at a Tucson High School, as part of a dancing school performance. A balalaika orchestra in the middle of the desert? This I had to see. Would Tucson audiences have even heard of Russian folk instruments like the Balalaika? Elizabeth Shaw took me to the performance at the same High School where, twenty years earlier, I had directed the Opera “Pagliacci” and premiered my “Round-Up” and “Brooms Of Mexico”.

The dance performance; a typical low quality recital, but I wasn’t there to see that. Afterwards, I went backstage to meet the orchestra’s conductor, Mia Bulgarin Gay. After expressing my love of Russian folk music and dancing, plus the language, I mentioned that what the orchestra really needed was a dance group to go with it to perform authentic Slavic dances. I could easily supply that. Then I joined the orchestra as a balalaika player myself; an occupation that was to continue for many years to come.

Photo above: First set of Kalinka dancers in class   Photo right: I join Balalaika Orchestra. In garden on Shaw property where my first Tucson house is located

 

Ballet Arts Studio
Next to the super market where I did my grocery shopping there was a ballet studio. I couldn’t help but glance in as I passed its open door. When I left New York I had made up my mind not to be involved in dance ever again but this dance school looked to be on a higher level than just an ordinary children’s dancing school.

Before long I was teaching ballet and character classes there and around town. There was also an occasional character class to teach at the University, So, my decision not to be involved in dance ever again had obviously run amok.

More Choreography and Beginnings Of The Kalinka Russian Dancers
With eight advanced students of the Ballet Arts Studio I formed a Slavic dance ensemble and called it “The Kalinka Russian Dancers”. From then on the balalaika orchestra grew more and more in popularity because of the dancing, quality choreography and authentic costumes.

My life had come full circle. I had started out at age fourteen as a Russian folk dancer with the Russakoff troupe and now, after a career on the professional stage, I was back doing the same thing I’d started out with.

There were whirlwind trips back to New York to stage “Le Carnaval”, “Firebird”, “Cinderella” as well as working with the amateur and semi-professional dance groups in Tucson that were just beginning.
 

Photo: "Le Carnaval"

 

For “Spectre de la Rose” I had a couple of extraordinary dancers: Jeffery Hughes and his soon to be wife, Pamela Reyman. Remarkably, Jeffery had the very same costume that George de la Pena wore as Nijinsky, in the Herbert Ross film “Nijinsky”. He also had a minor role in the film. How small the dance world is. Jeffrey had been one of the rustics in Ashton’s “The Dream” when I taught it to the Joffrey Ballet fifteen years earlier.

Photo: Jeffrey Hughes and Pamela Reyman in "Le Specre de la Rose"

The Arizona Opera Company
The Arizona Opera, for which I had twenty years earlier staged “Pagliacci” had by then grown from its, one might say, insignificant beginnings, into a major opera company with its own building, rehearsal studios, costume and scenery shops. There was no trouble becoming its resident choreographer. “La Sonnambula” was quickly followed by “Aida”, an opera I had danced in many times but always wanted to choreograph.

Aida’s four acts, has three ballet scenes, including the one in the spectacular triumphal scene that finishes the second act. I needed good dancers for this. Not having a school or a ready stable of dancers, I had to scout around for some. For principal dancers I hired two faculty members from the University dance department, Melissa Lowe and Jory Hancock. I managed to round up another principal male soloist and a corps of eight girls as well as twelve children for the Nubian slave dance. Although hardly to compare with the Metropolitan Opera production, this was nonetheless a Cecil B DeMille “Aida”, rife with towering statuary of Egyptian deities, bare-chested warriors, white-clad priestesses and cowering slaves.

It also wasn’t short on animals. Two live camels were led across the stage in the triumphal scene; a sight that delighted the audience but caused me to hold my breath that they didn’t leave anything behind that the dancers might slip and fall on!
The camels reappeared in the third act’s Nile scene. In defiance of the sleepy atmosphere they were meant to evoke, they drew thunderous but disruptive applause at every performance. Animals and kids always steal a show!

The reviews were good for this “Aida”:

“In no previous Arizona Opera Company production has the obligatory ballet been more meaningful, richly artistic or superbly executed than in this performance of Richard Holden’s choreography.”
Dan Buckley, Tucson Citizen, February 14, 1992
Photo: Soloists Melissa Lowe, Jory Hancock in "Aida" ballet

The Arizona Opera director, Glynn Ross, then in his 90s, came to Tucson after directing the opera company in Seattle and had put both companies on the global stage with a complete Wagner’s “Ring” cycle. A cruel joke going around among the orchestra and chorus members was that he looked and acted as if he was daily taken out of a cryonic chamber!

Probably unaware that he was being discourteous, he never thought to introduce me to the stream of conductors that I had to work with. While they would look on in amazement at his bad manners, I had to introduce myself. As often the case with haughty and self-important individuals in opera as well as ballet companies, they consider the choreologist or choreographer not important enough to introduce. It’s true that In opera, dancers and choreographers are never given much consideration but this breach of etiquette would never have happened at the Metropolitan Opera.
James Lucas, a gadabout operatic stage director came to Tucson to direct “La Sonnambula”. He was the same director I had worked with in New York for the NY Grand Opera production of Puccini’s “Le Villi”. He was generally rude. I didn’t take his dictatorial attitude as personally offensive as most did and said to him once that I thought that underneath his abusive exterior he was no doubt not mean at all but in reality a teddy-bear. His response was a definite no; that underneath he really was mean! He was so insulting to the singers and everyone else connected to the opera that rehearsals were dreaded and many went home in tears. It was surprising that Glynn Ross continued to invite him back unless the fee was so low he couldn’t get anyone else.

Then came “Die Fledermaus” and “La Traviata”. When Glynn Ross finally retired, the new director didn’t use dancing at all, even for a revival of “Aida” ten years later. Imagine, “Aida” without a ballet. It was inconceivable.

 

Photo: Die Fledermaus

 

It always amazed me how stage directors, musicians, even conductors know so little about dance. More often they know nothing at all about it while dancers and choreographers know music as essential. Well, not always. I know several ballet teachers and so-called choreographers who simply don’t have a clue about music.

 

Photo: Backstage picture of some of my gypsy dancers in "La Traviata". Left to right: Jennifer Wood Bonnell, Sabina Valic Burke, [unknown chorus singer], Jenni Hynum, Kathleen Schwartzman

 

Once, when I was to choreograph a “Cinderella” somewhere in Pennsylvania, I arrived for the first rehearsal to find the director had already choreographed most of the first act, including the four ‘seasons’ variations as one continuous corps de ballet number. She hadn’t a clue that they were individual variations, indispensable to the ballet. She just put on a recording of the music and plowed through without preparation or concept. I doubt if she even bothered to find out who the composer was.

Every choreographer should at least be able to read an orchestral score but I guess that’s a thing of the past.
When Arizona Opera asked me to be “dance consultant” for “Ariadne Auf Naxos”, a Richard Strauss opera, I became suspicious. I knew the leading singers had to dance a little and do some general clowning around. Presumably, the director would set this and as consultant I would only be called on for professional advice. Consultant in this case was a misnomer.

At the first rehearsal when it came to a needed dancing sequence the director graciously indicated I was to take over. Surprise! I was suddenly not a consultant at all but in fact, the choreographer.

He was a nice enough man, but this was the job he himself was supposed be doing. It could have really thrown me for a loop if I had not had enough sense to prepare all the stage business and operatic dancing beforehand. Taking up the gauntlet, I was able to step in and do it effortlessly. He was obviously more than relieved to have a Johnny-on-the-spot but I could sense the reason behind it. Apparently, this director knew nothing about choreography or even how to stage some sham dancing. Rather than admit this to the company, he requested a ‘consultant’, basically to cover for him. In so doing they could get away with paying me far less than they would for a choreographer. It was not a complete waste for me as the lesson came in valuable use with the film work that was yet to come.

The Tucson Weekly
What about the writing career that I had going for me in New York?

“The Tucson Weekly” featured journalism with an edge. It had built a readership of over 200,000 with insightful, cultural coverage, provocative analyses of local politics and offbeat feature writing. They were looking for a dance reviewer. I put together a portfolio of the best articles I had written for New York magazines and presented myself for the job.

My first review was about the Bill T. Jones performance. Tucson was just another stop on their tour. Admittedly, it was difficult not to win out on this one. My first paragraph was:

“Some 50 or so dancers stood naked before us on the stage at Centennial Hall last night. Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co. were joined by 42 local Tucson dancers to make up this army of innocents. Their open expressions showed dignity, purpose and togetherness”.

That was enough to grab attention. I weighed in with a full-page write-up. Bill T. Jones was Black, admittedly homosexual and he was HIV. The entire show was based on these subjects. “Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land’ was a sprawling work of operatic length. The 42 local dancers were of all ages, and most didn’t have the sleek look of dancers, especially to be seen stark naked in front of thousands, several of them my friends.
One of the most interesting sections of the ballet was after Jones himself danced a long solo, naked, as the anguished prophet Job. He then sat down, breathless, to discuss religion with a local minister whose answers to his questions were unscripted and spontaneous. What is sin? Why does God permit AIDS? There had been a different minister in each city on the tour but Tucson had a hard time supplying one. When they found out about the nature of the work, and the nudity, they dropped out. At the last minute they came up with one from the United Methodist Church who sat at the table of the Last Supper for their discussion.

At the same time BBC was filming the show for broadcast on PBS. Everything connected with it was big news. I had a winner. The “Weekly” staff was impressed and from then on every week I had to write a dance review.

Along with the press passes and increased stature in the dance community as the “new guy in town who really understands dance”, this was an exciting, full-time job. That is, when I was writing about a professional company. When none were in sight I had to write about the local, amateur groups; started for the most part by persons with very little dance training but all the same considered themselves choreographers. Perhaps they had a dance major degree from College or had the brilliant idea to put street kids on trapezes and call it dancing. More often than not there was just very little I could say about these performances of faux choreography. Even if I interviewed them on a personal level, their lives were hardly interesting enough to write about. I wracked my brain trying to come up with something that might have some drawing power. There were just not enough professional groups coming through to keep my interest up. After a year or so I left the “Weekly” but continued to write occasional dance reviews for the other established Tucson papers but only when it was something worth writing about.
 

A New House
Someone said to me that I should be living in a more suitable house; not the shabby-genteel dwelling I had grown comfortable in. In the Tucson Mountain foothills I found a nice corner lot to build on.

Photos above: My Tucson house from 1989 to the present

George Zoritch
George Zoritch was the first male ballet dancer I had ever seen, but only in the movies. “Escape Me Never” and “Night And Day”, two films that featured his dancing, were shown at the Metropolitan Theater in Boston when I was a teen-age usher there. I could never have guessed then that he would somewhere in the future be a friend and neighbor of mine. Then in his 70s, he had retired after teaching at the University of Arizona. He took care of Sonya in his house during my many trips out of town. I helped him write his memoirs and it was good practice speaking with him in the Russian language.

 



Photos: "Night and Day" (1946) costume and a picture in Tucson.

 

 

 

 

 

Photos below:  Images from the movie showing George Zoritch  (See Addendum below.)

Through George I met Vassili Sulich who ran the Nevada Dance Theater in Las Vegas. Vassili had been a top dancer for many years in the Tropicana Hotel stage shows. He was well known in Las Vegas. One evening we were being entertained as his guests at a special dinner party in the Tropicana. Sitting at a table with ten other people in a private dining room I was the only vegetarian and felt left out! Usually, vegetarians have to wait until last to be served. Feeling ostracized, you are left to watch everyone else eat while waiting for yours that never seems to come.

Being a vegetarian on a plane is another problem. If you’ve ever tasted a cold burrito you’d think twice about accepting any plane food, vegetarian or otherwise.


Photo: Arizona Balalaika Orchestra in 80s

Addendum
George Zoritch died on November 1st, 2009. He was 92.

I took it upon myself to arrange a memorial event held in the studio at the University where he had taught for 14 years. People came from near and far. The scene from the movie “Escape Me Never” that originally inspired me at age 14 to become a dancer myself was projected on a large screen.

Letters of condolence from many of the ballet world in Russia and the USA were read. It was a sad yet powerful event.

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