In the past month, the dance scene has lost two living giants, Pina Bausch and Merce Cunningham. Two diverse artists who did not shy away from controversy, but remained totally committed to their own vision, without ever denying all the many other facets of this beautiful art form we call Dance.
Though I met each of them only in passing, my artistic life has been curiously intertwined with both of them. Ms. Bausch was a descendant of German Expressionism, a school of which both my father and mother, Ernst Uthoff and Lola Botka, were great exponents. She attended
Juilliard, and left the year I arrived there. Her work was always
reflective of her initial schooling, but she was able to take the established theatrical presentations of the Kurt Jooss Ballet to a much larger canvas. She created dance works that were like huge murals that would come alive with intense performances that often seemed more theatre pieces than dance works. Yet, she managed to capture the world with her sense of humanity and concern for the individual. Each dancer/character in her works had a distinct life of its own and the concept of “corps de ballet” just did not fit her style.
Similarly, that is a statement that can also apply to Merce, an iconic
figure in the history of not only American but world Dance. His influence on the art of choreography was incredible. Great artists of today readily admit to that, and many lesser artists were affected by it without even knowing it.
My relationship with Mr. Cunningham’s work was truly a “hate/love” relationship. As a young dancer, I tried desperately to understand where he was coming from or going. His work seemed a puzzle to me, and as a young performer with the ego of such, I could only think that I did not want to perform his creations. For years, I remained on the sidelines until suddenly, some five or six years ago, an awakening took place in me. I began once again to view his works but with a totally new understanding, and his greatness became so apparent that I did not comprehend having been in the dark so long.
I was at Jacob’s Pillow this past weekend, viewing his company with the hope of bringing them to the St. Louis area as part of our 2011-2012 Season. The word was out that he had fallen ill but no one really wanted to acknowledge it. One dancer in the company had been a student of mine at New World School of the Arts and an original member of a company I put together, Michael Uthoff Dance Theatre. We spoke at length of his work, his legacy, and the mystery that the future will hold. You can imagine the shock when, Monday morning, my computer greeted me with the news of his passing.
We are poorer because their on-going creativity has come to an end. But we are so much richer for having walked the earth at a time when they showed us different and exciting paths.
Photos top to bottom: Pina Bausch by Atsushi Iijima; Merce Cunningham by Annie Leibovitz