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CHAPTER 26

Chakra
“Chakra“ was my second excursion into modern choreography, the first was “Theme Of Youth”, with music by Howard Hansen.

“Chakra” - a center of life energy in the body according to yogic philosophy - had new age music by the Mannheim Steamroller. It was originally called ‘The Seventh Chakra”, the theme being spirituality. I used six girl dancers and one male dancer. He could be the Hindu god Krishna, or a Christ figure. It didn’t matter.

Photo: Jane Matty and Carl Unkrich in "Chakra"

At one point within the ballet, I choreographed the girls performing a salutation to the sun in a golden spot-light from stage right. Two of the girls, being religious fundamentalists, refused to do this. They believed it had some kind of demonic connection. Rather than explaining that it was merely a series of yoga poses that stretch and tone the body with the ultimate goal of a better state of being, I choreographed them leaving the stage during this health giving ritual and to return when it was over. That seemed to satisfy them.

At the end of the ballet, as the male figure performed a whirling dervish, the girls entered, each with a lit candle that they set on the stage in the form of the six pointed Hebrew star of David, and danced around it. Avoiding further opposition from the two fundamentalists, I never told them what the geometric figure represented. The lights went out as the dancers picked up the candles and swirled. All the audience could see in the darkness were the pinpoints of moving lights. The traveling lights could be space ships or whatever. Everyone thought it was a spellbinding ballet. I was even called a ‘genius’ by some.

Death Of Charles Menzies
The phone rang with the tragic news that Charles Menzies, my best friend and mentor was dead.

He had collapsed on a street in Stevenage, England, from a heart attack after doing some shopping for gifts. In his pocket was a plane ticket for Tucson. He had planned on leaving the following day with the gifts for his many American friends.

I always enjoyed showing him America, as he had shown me England. He knew and loved America and especially Tucson. He twice visited and stayed with me in the little house on the Shaw property. Now that I had built a new house in the foothills I was anxious to show it to him. I wanted him to see how well I had done since my penniless days in England. He was excited about doing so, but it was not to be.

Through Charles I had many friends in England, including his brother, still living in Cheshire. I even knew his public school teacher, who by then in her 80s visited New York City, alone. As her only American friend, I took her to dinner and to the Joffrey Ballet. This was quite an experience for her as the Joffrey company was dancing “The Crucible”, an all nude ballet and we were sitting in the front row! Fortunately, it was followed by “Cakewalk” that was Americana and far more presentable for her.

Charles had given me an education. He introduced me to British and European culture. Without his help I would not have been able to become a choreologist.

I will always be indebted to him for his guidance and concern for my education and well-being, truly the best friend I ever had.

My Brief Film Career
Tucson has film studios and a long history of movie making. The studios were first built in 1939 for the movie “Arizona”. Since then, countless feature films have been shot there. Hollywood liked to film in Arizona because it is a ‘right to work’ state and is a lot cheaper. If you have seen a John Wayne movie, you have probably seen Old Tucson.

Photo: Me on movie set of “High Chaparral” ranch in Arizona Territory, 1870

A lady I was seeing, Helena de Crespo, worked at a theatrical agency. She told me to go to a particular audition for a movie role


Tombstone
The part I was auditioning for was Dr. Faust in the film “Tombstone”, starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer and Dana Delaney. As Dr. Faust is supposed to be 200 years old, I brought along pictures of myself made up as Dr.Coppelius, not 200 years old, but old all the same, from the ballet “Coppelia”.

During the private interview with the choreographer, I instinctively got up and danced with this a nice young lady, in the character of Dr. Faust. This impressed her so that when I got home, my phone message said I had the job.

Every morning at the crack of dawn, I had to drive over the mountain pass from my house to the film studios out in the desert. This was because of the special makeup that had to be applied. I sat in the trailer along with all the stars for an hour each morning as the makeup artist made me look very old.

Photo: This is what Hollywood did to me!

On the main sound stage they built an exact replica of the interior of the famous “Birdcage Theater” as it would have looked in 1860. The original theater, now a museum, still stands in Tombstone, a town about 75 miles south of Tucson on the road to Bisbee.

It was the middle of a hot Arizona summer. Studio air conditioners had to be turned off during the shooting periods as their sound would be recorded on film. Someone had placed a thermometer on the set and it often read 134 degrees Fahrenheit! In my elaborate makeup and costume, I had to be sprayed with cold water every five minutes. The fake theater was also filled with smoke from the cowboy and buckaroo extras in the audience, who occasionally shot at the actors. Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday sat in a balcony.

The scene began with me sitting at a desk studying my magical books. I was told the desk had been the one Sydney Greenstreet sat at in “The Maltese Falcon”. Four other dancers and the female star, Dana Delaney as the Devil were dancing around me. She offered me a contract to sell my soul, which I signed with my own blood. Then I danced with her.

It was originally an eight-minute ballet, but because Dana Delaney, although a charming and talented actress, couldn’t dance so well, it was cut to about one minute. That was a pity as it was a nice little ballet. A corny melodrama, as it would have been back in those times in the far West.

After three days of rehearsals the director was fired. The choreographer, his wife, was also fired, but the ballet was by then finished. I don’t know why they were fired, but the new director, George Cosmatos, made it into a real blockbuster movie. Frankly, I didn’t care for it, being far too violent for my taste.

I made a lot of money on that movie. Of course, compared to what the stars or even featured players make it was miniscule, but to me it was a lot. Residuals kept coming for years as it went to TV, then to video and DVD.

Photo: Movie poster for "Tombstone"

Unlike skimping ballet companies, Hollywood has everything at its fingertips: the best talents in every field, and money never seems to be a problem. The waste is tremendous. The four other dancers, though exquisitely costumed, are not seen at all in the film, accept in the curtain call. Because Dana Delaney is featured in the ballet, [it’s the first time Wyatt Earp, sees her dancing and falls in love] it was done in long shots.

Following this experience I was called to be in several other films, in very minor, un-credited roles.

Pontiac Moon
“Pontiac Moon” starring Ted Danson had me as a High School principal who was constantly falling asleep at his desk. This was supposed to irritate Danson so much that he quit his teaching job in order not to become like me. For an entire morning, during countless takes, Danson looked at me in utter disgust while shaking a stick at me, I supposed he was trying to get into the role but he made me extremely uncomfortable. During breaks he could have made me feel at ease by saying something, but he didn’t.

Legend
Another was “Legend”, a TV series starring Richard Dean Anderson and John de Lancie. In one episode I was at a party, as Oscar Wilde. Another episode had me again as a ‘dance consultant’ where I did choreography. This was of course the same situation as with the opera company, a strategy to avoid paying me more.

Photo: On movie location at 6AM teaching children a Hungarian folk dance.

At 4AM I would be driving to the location south of Tucson. The scene was a ranch in the 1840s. As the sun came up, I was in a meadow, choreographing a Hungarian folk dance for children. They were to appear in a Festival scene of Hungarian immigrants. The whole scene was to be interrupted by a battle with ranchers.

 

The Two Pigeons
There was another revival of “The Two Pigeons” that had big problems. The so-called Board Of Directors of Dance Southwest, consisting mainly of mothers, decided to dismiss Jane Matty, who started the company and was its director. This was the very same predicament that happened to me earlier with the Tucson Civic Ballet. I was familiar with the maneuver and could sympathize.

All scenery and costumes for every production, including “Petrushka” and “The Two Pigeons” were seized and had to be re-created.

Photo: A scene from "Two Pigeons"

But “Two Pigeons” turned out a better production than before. The original one I did for Balletfore was premiered at the Riverside Theater in New York and subsequently toured the country. The Riverside Theater renders a real service to the dance community with its ambitious festivals, but the problem is the small stage size. Balletfore numbered only 14 dancers, so they were able to dance full out consistently. But their clean, soaring jumps traveled up, rather than ahead. Dance Southwest in Tucson had a wide and deep stage. Like my “Firebird”, it was actually better than the New York production. The gypsy camp scene even had a convincing gypsy wagon.

Rodney Gustavson
Rodney Gustavson danced in my first Tucson Nutcracker, in 1967. He did the role of the little Nutcracker Prince, who merely sat alongside Clara at a table of sweets during all of Act Two. At age 14, he was the only boy in Tucson who showed promise as a dancer. When he got a bit older he left Tucson and eventually wound up in the corps de ballet of American Ballet Theater. It happened to be at the same time that I was on the ABT staff as resident Choreologist.

Photo: Rodney Gustavson

By the time I moved to Tucson and into semi-retirement, he had left ABT and had returned back home.
For a while he joined Stephanie Stigers to teach at her school. Then he and Jane Matty opened a small studio. Suddenly, out of the blue, he married and moved to Santa Barbara, California where he opened his own school and started a company.

State Street Ballet
The school grew very rapidly, eventually becoming the biggest ballet school in Santa Barbara. His company, The State Street Ballet, became professional. He invited me to stage my “Upstairs Downstairs” on his opening, first at the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara and then touring California. As a friend and to help him build his school and company, I gave him this ballet for free.

Every summer I taught for his summer intensive dance workshop with students from all over the country. “Khatchaturiana” was staged there twice, at the famous Lobero Theater, with costumes loaned from my Tucson Kalinka Russian dance group. I was able to use professional dancers from his company along with the students for this.

One summer the Kalinin Russian Gypsy dance group, led by Alexander Kalinin performed an exciting presentation that they had done for quite a while in Las Vegas.

It included my “Yablochka” [Russian Sailor’s Dance] that I had originally choreographed in Tucson, but this time with Sergei Domrachev from Moscow dancing one of the sailors, with gusto and high professionalism. Also, my own “Khorovod” [a Russian woman’s round dance] was on the same program. This is a dance with long skirts that reach to the floor, called "serafans" in Russian.

Feet unseen, the dancers, skim across the stage in patterns, as if on roller skates. People often ask me how they do that. I answer that only the choreographer knows.

It was the same choreography that my Kalinka group in Tucson were doing, and with the same costumes that I brought with me. Being professional dancers they performed it much nicer, but without the full orchestra and chorus as in Tucson.

Later, both these dances of mine were performed at the Hollywood Bowl.

Photos: Russian Sailor's Dance and Khorovod

“Una Noche En Espana” was another presentation that I choreographed, using inspiration and material I had gathered during my tour in Spain with the Harkness Ballet.

When the State Street Ballet company was to make a tour of The Republic Of China, dancing ‘Beauty And The Beast”, Rodney asked if I would like to come along and dance the role or Beauty’s father. In a burst of enthusiasm I said yes.

Photo: Sayat Asatryan from Bolshoi performing the “Farucca”

First Visit To Republic Of China (Taiwan)
I had traveled all over the world, but never to the Far East. Even though I was not to be paid, (evidently this was a favor to Rodney) I welcomed the chance to see the ROC.

The choreographer of this “Beauty And The Beast” was the most unethical and reprehensible person in ballet that I had ever met. Rude, patronizing, alcoholic, I couldn’t understand why Rodney kept using him.
I had to learn the role in only two days before we were to leave for St. George, Utah to perform it. During every rehearsal, this choreographer treated me so abusively and threw me into such a tailspin that I couldn’t do anything right. I would have walked out if there had been someone else to replace me, but for Rodney’s sake I continued dancing, through gritted teeth.

The dancers were shocked by his attitude. Some even ventured to tell him outright that he should give me some respect rather than the constant insults, but it had no effect. Not only that, his choreography was repetitious and banal. He was not going to accompany us to China, which was a relief for all.
There had just been serious threats from mainland China against Taiwan. Many of us were reluctant to even go until The US State Department assured Rodney it was safe.

From LAX airport, we boarded a giant China Airways plane that seemed to be taking all of Los Angeles with it when it took off! Sixteen hours later we arrived in Taipei, then another plane for Kaohsiung, a huge city that seemed to be our home base. I did the daily class with the other dancers, mostly teenagers or in early 20s. Being much older than they, I kept to myself most of the time. On days off I visited museums and department stores.

The theaters were huge and well attended, the hotels first class.

We spent two weeks in the ROC, performing in six major cities: Kaoshsiung, Pingtung, Hsintsu, Taichung, Chiayi and finishing off in Taipei.

Photo: Hotel where I stayed in Taiwan

 

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