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CHAPTER 25

Dance In Tucson
Even though I had vowed never to be involved in dance again, dance was my emotional survival. I soon became embedded in Tucson’s local schools and dance groups. These fell far short of New York professionalism but at least served as a minor creative outlet for me. Not surprisingly, I found them to have just as many intrigues as the professional schools and companies I had worked with, if not more.

Stephanie Stigers, who had danced with me in the Civic Ballet years before, still had her intense visions but no longer was about to produce a full-scale ballet about the Bolshevik revolution as she once had tried to do.
Stephanie had done something called “The Green Castle” in which I agreed to dance as a kind of Albert Einstein figure. Stephanie wrote reams of narration that the dancers mimed and mouthed. It was very odd to open my mouth and hear Stephanie’s voice come out.

I did manage to insert a comic dance of my own as Groucho Marx, doing a tango in full get-up of false nose, horned rim glasses, overgrown eyebrows and cigar. It got plenty of laughs at the first rehearsal. Subsequent rehearsals went silent as by then they knew all the jokes! All stand-up comics are familiar with that bewildering experience.
Another ballet had me as a drunken tramp who had died, gone to heaven and came down to earth periodically to visit and comfort his sorrowful daughter. Quick scene changes back and forth from earth to heaven were done with Stephanie’s off stage narration such as, ‘meanwhile, back in heaven” and suddenly the stage would be filled with angels, en pointe. All this to Beethoven’s gigantic Choral symphony!

I had already set “Humpbacked Horse” for her group.
 

Photos: Me as Groucho Marx in the ballet "Angel"

Tucson Regional Ballet
For Linda Walker’s school and company, called The Tucson Regional Ballet (where I had first met the balalaika orchestra) I choreographed “Khatchaturian”. I did all of these Tucson projects for free, just to keep up with dancing and socializing.

This ballet on Armenian themes would later become a kind of signature piece of mine and performed all over the country, with great audience appeal. Here in Tucson it served as just another vehicle for Linda’s students and with audiences made up of parents, relatives and friends whose attention was directed only at their own. It was not an artistic atmosphere.

Like every other dance school, not only in Tucson but also across the country, Linda decided to do a “Nutcracker”. Ivan Nage once told me that Nutcracker is like a disease. Every little town and hamlet has a Nutcracker; often more than one. I never told her that my own “Nutcracker” 1967-1972 was the very first in the entire State of Arizona and had opened the downtown Convention Center Music Hall, Tucson’s largest professional theater. Or that in
New Jersey, my “Nutcracker” was then reaching its 18th successful year of steady, sold out performances. Even though I had ‘bragging rights’, I saw no point in bringing all that up.

A Southwest Nutcracker

From my previous experience dancing in “A Colonial Nutcracker”, I did venture to suggest, that it might be a good idea to make her Nutcracker regional - “A Southwest Nutcracker”, set in early Tucson of 1880s.. She did just that and it became a tremendous success, continuing a regular feature at Tucson Christmas time as a unique and appealing change from the traditional..
 
Every year she added better costumes and more elaborate scenery. At interviews, Linda always told how the idea had suddenly struck her to make her Nutcracker regional. It was actually my idea but I was beyond seeking acclaim of any kind so let it pass. But she did have some fresh ideas of her own; making it truly Southwest in look and flavor. Her dancers appeared as Indian maidens, chili peppers, cactus, sage-brush and all things associated with the Southwest desert. The Mice battle became King Coyote and his army of Coyotes against the American Cavalry.
I danced in this production as Drosselmeyer, but, as with the Colonial Nutcracker where I was more or less costumed as George Washington, in this Southwest version I became Tio Diago; a kind of El Zorro character with cape, mask and sword. The Nutcracker doll I carried was dressed as Union soldier, or perhaps it was a Confederate soldier. At any rate, it won a National prize and ended up on the White House Christmas tree in Washington, DC.

Photos: Me as El Zorro in "A Southwest Nutcracker"

Meanwhile, I was staging “Le Carnaval” and full-length “Cinderella” in New Jersey. Professional dancers from Manhattan were chosen for the lead roles. Traditionally, the two ugly sisters are played by men. During a dress rehearsal, one broke his ankle and had to drop out. I had to search for a replacement in a hurry. I was in Manhattan when I got this devastating news. Fortunately I was able to get one of New York Theater Ballet’s dancers and rehearsed him on the spot for the next day’s matinee. As he had to perform all night in a rock band he got no sleep but miraculously appeared in New Jersey the next day, a half hour before curtain.

He took over the role perfectly, in fact, far better than the original dancer. That left the other role empty. There was no other solution than for me to step in and do it. It was my third appearance in a drag role, this time in pink! I vowed it would be my last.

Photos above: New Jersey "Le Carnaval" - Me as Pantalon in left image
Photos above: New Jersey "Cinderella" - Me as ugly sister in pink
Photos above: New Jersey "Firebird"

Firebird in Tucson

Although I had staged my “Firebird” several times for various companies, the first being for the New York Theater Ballet, I always felt the one I did for Tucson Regional Ballet was the best. This feeling was validated by Arnold Sphor (founder of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada) when he viewed it. He felt the larger cast; far bigger than the original cast of New York Theater Ballet, plus larger scenery and excellent dancers cast as the Firebird and Prince Ivan and leading monsters, was really something to show to other companies.

Photos: Tucson "Firebird"

Upstairs, Downstairs
Tucson’s leading ballet school, Ballet Arts, where I had taught a few classes and staged “Le Carnaval” and “Spectre de la Rose”, was run by Mary Beth Cabana. Her background was Cleveland Ballet and Tucson Civic Ballet (after I had left).

Here was an opportunity to choreograph “Upstairs Downstairs” that I so long had in mind to do. I based it on the BBC award-winning TV series of the same name; the episode when King Edward the Seventh comes to dinner at the Bellamy household in 1910.

I had no profound message. If anything, I wanted to evoke that Edwardian era in London life. The Bellamy residence was a house divided, by wealth. Upstairs, all was spacious elegance. Downstairs it was bare, scrubbed and crowded. I found the downstairs servants far more interesting from a dance viewpoint with more opportunity for a variety of dances.

For the entire household, entertaining King Edward for dinner was the highlight of the age.
As Americans, we may find it difficult to relate to this class system. Even in England it had for the most part disappeared, although when I lived in London during the 60s, it still lingered on to some extent. Certainly in the ballet company I was then dancing with, we dancers were still considered, in certain upper class circles, as second class citizens and certainly of ill repute. We often were instructed to stay backstage and not socialize with the audience.

“Upstairs Downstairs” was a blend of reality and stylization. I used care in fulfilling the particular characteristics of the individual roles but perhaps relied too much on the audience having seen the TV series. When I later re-staged it in Santa Barbara, California, one critic complained that it had no focus. He must have been blind. The main focus was Rose, the leading character. The ballet opens with Rose, it ends with Rose. everything is focused on Rose.

Rose has stayed on through thick and thin. During her ‘tea cup variation’ [an entire variation danced while drinking a cup of tea] she has a letter in her pocket from her one great love; who has just been killed in the World War 1914-1918 then going on. Rose outlasts them all. At the end, when I had all the characters freeze in poses, Rose enters with her suitcase, kisses each one in turn – to the chimes of Big Ben - and leaves the Bellamy household for good.
I had searched all over for proper music to fit the period. Naturally, the first though was Gilbert and Sullivan, but just by chance, in a London record shop I came across some music by Joseph Horowitz. It fit perfectly.

Photos: "Upstairs Downstairs"

Dance Southwest
Another school was starting up by Jane Matty Willet. During the Civic Ballet days, Jane had been an exceptionally talented child and went on to dance in Holland with the Netherlands Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet. Married and with the beginnings of a family, she had danced for me three years earlier in the Arizona Opera production of “La Sonnambula”.

For a company that she was starting, very much like the old Tucson Civic Ballet in form and function. I helped set for her a “Sleeping Beauty” - teaching all variations, and a revival of “Khatchaturiana” that was performed at the University.

She did a beautiful ballet version of “A Christmas Carol” to Glazunov’s “The Seasons” music. In this I played Scrooge. It went on for several years during the holiday season. It recalled my life in England, dancing with Ballets Minerva on endless tours throughout the United Kingdom. Ballets Minerva also did “A Christmas Carol” to music by Smetana and Berlioz. Then being much younger, in that version I danced a ‘barrow boy’ selling hot potatoes with a demanding variation, and another role as ‘the young Scrooge’’.

Photos: Me as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" for Dance Southwest

Petrushka
My introduction to “Petrushka” began with the Marquis De Cuevas company from Paris that visited New York in the early 1950s. This was at the Century Theater that stood on Seventh Avenue and Central Park South, now long gone. Being then a poor and struggling student, I somehow managed to buy an upper balcony ticket. Nicholas Orlov, a magnificent dancer long forgotten, played the role of Petrushka. I was stunned. Of course I knew all about Petrushka from the many books I had read about Nijinsky dancing this role, created for him by Fokine and premiered in Paris in 1911. But, seeing it at last on the stage was final proof for me, that the most important emotions and truths could be expressed in dance. I left the theater enthralled and determined that one day I would dance the title role of Petrushka.

It was not until the 1960s, in London, that I saw it again, with Rudolph Nureyev dancing the role with the Royal Ballet. At the same time at the Institute of Choreology, we were studying the notated score of it that Joan Benesh had spent years working on.

The next time I saw it on the stage was when I was on the staff of American Ballet Theater. This ABT production was staged by Fokine himself in 1941 and kept intact by Dimitri Romanoff who had danced in it. “Dima” and I became good friends. We sat together at rehearsals and often talked about Petrushka. During every performance I would stand in the wings and watch every detail.of the choreography and study how the scenery, an exact reproduction of the Benois design, was put together.

Petrushka In Tucson
“Petrushka” had never been seen in Tucson. I suggested to Jane that it could easily replace “Nutcracker” at Christmas-time. Dance Southwest put on a nice production. It had all the trimmings; the puppet stage, the falling snow, costumes after the originals, painstakingly put together by the studio seamstress.

The role of Petrushka was danced by P.J. Mann who had been on Broadway in “A Chorus Line” and had retired to Tucson. She did it beautifully, though it could be easily seen by the audience that it was a woman.
I danced the leading coachman role while snow began to fall. Starting by beating my body to keep warm, I did all the squat kicks and Russian tricks required.

Photo: Backstage of me and partner Kathleen Schwartzman as gypsy
I enjoyed dancing this role.


My turn to dance the title role of Petrushka came the following year, and I must say, rather late in life. By then my stamina had waned somewhat, but I was determined to dance it at any cost. Every day I went into the studio by myself to rehearse the Russian dance in the first scene, followed immediately by the long cell scene.

 

 

 

 

I danced what I think were reasonably good performances, in fact, remarkable for my age. Most dancers who had danced the role had been in their 20s. The famous cell scene I found physically not difficult to dance. It is mainly acting, with pathos. My main concern was whether I could go directly into the cell scene, after spending all my energy on the dance preceding it. I need not have worried. It all came out fine.

Photo above: Me as Head Coachman in Tucson Petrushka
Photos above: Me as Petrushka

Of course, being a school production with students of Jane’s studio, the audience again was basically made up of parents, relatives and friends.

The fascinating history of this ballet and the Diaghilev/Nijinsky era that it came from was beyond them. I thought it would be a good idea to have a pre-curtain talk about the ballet and its origins, which helped some, but basically they were there only to see their teen-age children. It was extremely doubtful if they had ever heard of Stravisnky, Diaghileff, Fokine, or Nijinsky, let alone Petrushka. The early 20th Century creative geniuses meant nothing to them. They did understand and laugh at the rude gestures I made, as Petrushka’s ghost, to the Showman at the end of the ballet, swinging from the top of the puppet theater. But the ballet mainly served only as a show-piece for their offspring and what mattered most was that their children should be seen downstage.

I’m not saying Tucson audiences are ignorant, only that, other than their own children’s participation, amateur ballet, no matter how expert it may be, is low on their list of priorities.

Photo above: The puppet theater in Tucson "Petrushka". I am on the right as Petrushka.
Photos above: I enter the Blackmoor's cell. On right, me in my cell

A Post-Script On Petrushka
Following one performance, I went out front and happened to see a father of one of the dancers who had a video camera set up. I asked if I could later have a copy of the video. “Who are you”? was his reply. I had just danced the title role and had even coached his daughter, yet he hadn’t a clue of who I was.

Even though an immense amount of work went into producing this “Petrushka” and making it as authentic as possible, it was shown before audiences of know-nothings. I felt as a voice in the wilderness. True, there are other voices far stronger than mine that are unacknowledged. How dare I lift up my voice in the wilderness of the artistically unconscious? I am sure I am not moved by egotism or arrogance, but simply out of my deep love of dance. Our society promotes knowledge of commerce and sports but not the arts, and this is both regrettable and evident.

At least I could be personally satisfied. My life-long dream of dancing Petrushka, even if at a late date in my life, had materialized.

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