Acclaimed professor, dancer and choreographer Michael Uthoff is slowing down, but not stopping

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Seated at the front of the studio, legs crossed but leaning forward as if on the edge of something, Michael Uthoff shouts directions to the seven dancers in front of him. 

Choreographer Michael Uthoff (left) shares notes with his cast after their dress rehearsal performance. Photo by Zoe DeYoung

“Lean back, lean back, lean back,” Uthoff says, shifting in his chair as if responding to his own requests. “I can’t show you now, my body is too old for that stuff.” 

It is 7 p.m. and the cast of Uthoff’s ballet piece “JUVENTUD (Youth)” are rehearsing for the Webster University Dance Ensemble concert. He is demanding, but patient. With a few days until opening night, there is time yet.

Having worked with some of the most prolific dance artists and companies of the last six decades, Uthoff’s resume is the envy of almost any dancer.

But after enough dance to fill ten lifetimes and nearly 15 years as an adjunct professor at Webster University, he says these next few might be his last. 

Uthoff grew up surrounded by dance, born in Santiago, Chile to dancers and founders of the Chilean National Ballet Lola Botka and Ernst Uthoff. He wasn’t much interested in a career of his own in dance. He witnessed, “the agony, the desperation” that came from a life in dance, from creative blocks to company strife. 

“I had grown up with dance from the inside out. So I had seen the irony more than the ecstasy,” Uthoff said.

Instead, he toyed with the idea of moving to London to pursue acting—ironically, he preferred British films, as the Chilean way of acting was, “too exaggerated”— but his high school girlfriend was a dancer. In the process of seeing her daily work, something shifted. 

“I began to look at dance from the outside in,” Uthoff said.

It wasn’t until a date with his then-girlfriend to a performance of The Moor’s Pavane by José Limón that things shifted, once again. 

“It absolutely enthralled me,” Uthoff said in his spotlight series “Michael’s Minute” for Dance St. Louis. “I didn’t know at the time why I felt the way that I did, I only knew that I turned to my girlfriend at the time and said, ‘if I ever dance, that is what I am going to do.’”

“So one night I burst into my parents room and I said, ‘I know you’re not gonna like this, but I want to try dancing,’” Uthoff recalled. “Deep inside, I think there was a sense of great pride. But great fear, because this world, it doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

With courage, drive and a healthy dose of nepotism, Uthoff began dancing in his parent’s school. It was the middle of the school year, and he had some catching up to do.

“It was very interesting because I couldn’t do it,” Uthoff said, remarking that his legs and feet weren’t developed to the caliber of his trained peers. “But I had a really good understanding of what it needed to be. The one thing I could do was I could move very well. I had an innate sense of contemporary movement.”

To say he rose to the challenge of balletic movement would be an understatement. But he was under the shadow of his parents in Chile. 

“I said, ‘I don’t want to be your son here. I want to try and see what I can do,’ and they were very much in favor of that,” Uthoff said. 

He is quick to acknowledge that the ensuing scholarship he received from the Rockefeller Foundation was not of his own merit, but his parents’ connections. The scholarship covered tuition to the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance and the School of American Ballet, as well as a plane ticket.

At 18 years old, and with only five months of dance training, he was on his way to New York City. 

The ball began rolling, and fast. Six months after he moved to America, modern dance pioneer Martha Graham herself asked Uthoff to join her company. He declined.

“It hurts too much,” Uthoff said. 

It was a ballsy move that most dancers would cringe at, but Uthoff was validly unconcerned.

He lived across the street from Juilliard, so he took classes there too. It was there that he met José Limón, the choreographer of the piece that made him decide to dance. Limón asked him to dance in his company. This one he agreed to. 

“I didn’t think twice,” Uthoff said. 

He toured part of the United States performing Limón’s works with the company. A year later, he joined Joffrey Ballet, where he had a long career and quickly rose to the coveted role of Principal Dancer. His first choreographic work was presented by them, precipitating a career creating his own works. 

Uthoff knows that what he did then could not be done again. He landed in the small pressure cooker of Manhattan in the 1960s when the art world was compact and hot with experimentation. 

“I came in, at the right time, the right place in history, to be able to do what I did with the talent that I had,” Uthoff said. “Compared to the dancers that I see today, not so much in the contemporary world, but in the ballet world, I couldn’t do what they do at all. They’re so much better trained than I would ever be.”

His list of accolades is lengthy, and include founding Hartford Ballet in Connecticut, not even ten years after moving to New York as a teenager. He served as artistic director for twenty years, and even took out a second mortgage on his home to help pay for the dancers salaries. 

He moved on to Ballet Arizona in the same role of artistic director for seven years, and formed the Michael Uthoff Dance Theatre with company members. He left after problems with the board of directors. Astonishingly, Uthoff pivoted to a brief stint in real estate. 

“I was a lot better at it than I wanted to be and therefore I didn’t want to do it,” Uthoff laughed. “I hated every minute.”

Lucky for him, his career in real estate was short-lived. He was offered a position at the Teatro Colón in Argentina. While there, he reconnected with Sally Bliss, his former partner at the Joffrey Ballet. When she decided to step down from her role as executive director of Dance St. Louis, she called in Uthoff. 

Thus began Uthoff’s journey of dance in St. Louis. In his opinion, there was a lot to be done for the city’s dance scene.

“For all the experience that they had and all that Sally Bliss and everyone had done, I thought that the local dance scene was stuck in the 60s and doing things that were bad even in the 60s,” Uthoff said.   

In his effort to revitalize, he launched Spring to Dance, now the midwest region’s most celebrated dance festival, modeled after NYC’s Fall for Dance festival. He also created New Dance horizons, a performance series that paired choreographers with local companies to push them out of their comfort zones. 

In 2010, Uthoff was offered a teaching position in Webster University’s dance department by Peter Sargent, a board member of Dance St. Louis and the founding dean of the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts. 

“What I discovered was that I enjoy teaching. I had never liked to teach before. When you teach as a director of a dance company, you teach for an ego purpose. In a school like this, you need to be much more open minded,” Uthoff said.

Uthoff found that teaching college students was indeed very different from teaching company members, and he had to find a different way to reach the students in front of him.

“You cannot apply that same premise that you would in the professional world, so you have to find a route. It’s interesting to get to the point where I do find a way, where I can enjoy when one of them does something. Even if it took me four years,” Uthoff said.

Over the years, Uthoff has built a relationship between Webster Dance and Dance St. Louis. He says the most important thing that any dancer can do for their craft is to see dance, so he provides students discounted tickets to Dance St. Louis’ Spring to Dance shows, making the most acclaimed — and expensive — dance companies more accessible to watch. 

This season, the students saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s work, “Revelations,” among others. 

Uthoff also set up the Dance Education Residency Program at Dance St. Louis. The program provides school-time classes five days a week, as well as three-week-long residencies by professional teaching artists from Dance St. Louis’ touring companies at predominately underserved public schools in the city of St. Louis. 

One of these schools is Central Visual and Performing Arts High School (CVPA). Keshaun Brooks started dancing as a sophomore through the residency program at his school, where he met Uthoff. Now, he is a freshman and student of Uthoff’s at Webster University, and will perform in Uthoff’s piece this weekend. 

“When I was cast in his piece I was really happy. I really love this piece. It’s really nice but It’s hard. I want to make him proud,” Brooks said. “For all these years that I’ve been with him, he believes in me.”

Brooks received a scholarship to Webster through Dance St. Louis. There have been many students like Brooks who found Webster through the program. 

“I really enjoy that,” Uthoff said of the cross pollination. “They have seen and been educated by eight different companies by the time they graduate, so if they don’t have any idea where they want to go as dancers, they’re stupid.”

Good thing Brooks knows the direction he wants to go. He hopes to dance with either Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater or Complexions Contemporary Ballet, both companies that he did residencies with through Dance St. Louis’ program. 

For Uthoff, the 80 year old who brags he taught himself how to do a double tour while laying in bed, things are slowing down, but not stopping quite yet. 

“If I teach three classes in a day, I’m wiped. I don’t have the energy for too much. In two or three years I think I’m going out to pasture,” Uthoff said. “I appreciate what I’ve learned from every single dancer that went by.”

You can see Uthoff’s piece, “JUVENTUD (Youth),” in the Webster University Dance Ensemble concert this weekend, May 3-4 at 7:30 p.m. and May 5 at 2 p.m. on the Browning Mainstage of the Loretto-Hilton Center. 

 

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