ST. LOUIS, MO — When Michael Uthoff first arrived in St. Louis, MO, he was asked what he thought of the local dance scene.
“I think it’s shit,” he said.
Born to dancing parents who founded the Chilean National Ballet, Uthoff danced for Jose Limon and eventually found his way toward classical ballet. Having seen success all over the country and the world, including director positions with the Hartford Ballet and Ballet Arizona, why Saint Louis?
In fact, Uthoff believes that Saint Louis is the perfect place for his vision. There is a sense of freedom and objectivity that come with working for a presenter rather than aligning with a particular company, and Uthoff is doing now what he always felt he would be. It wasn’t until recently, however, that people really started to listen. He explained to me that the people of St. Louis are generous, supportive, and respectful of his knowledge and experience. His staff at Dance St. Louis trust him, and are willing to do whatever he says (as long as the funding is there). One of very few presenting organizations led by a former dancer, Dance St. Louis has employed an ex-dancer at the helm for 20 years. While other presenters have backgrounds in non-profit administration, philanthropy and business, dance is Michael Uthoff’s only priority. It’s simpler that way, and he loves having a singular focus.
“We could fail, but we’ll fail beautifully.”
The two big projects out of Michael Uthoff’s brain were Spring to Dance, the once small, regional dance festival that now exposes St. Louis to some of the best dance in the country, and New Dance Horizons, a new program that commissions an original work from the local companies. When I asked if either project would succeed elsewhere, he admitted that there had been talks of expanding Spring to Dance to include other cities, but “there’s too much ego in New York… but it still needs to be a place with a metropolitan feel.” Spring to Dance wouldn’t work in Toledo or Tulsa any more than it would work in Chicago or New York.
So, what is dance like in St. Louis the rest of the year? I had already figured out that Michael Uthoff was a smart man. While I assumed that the goal of Spring to Dance was to draw in season subscribers, he admitted that there really isn’t a direct correlation between the festival and ticket sales throughout the season. Subscribers aren’t where they should be, and Dance St. Louis loses money on shows just like everyone else. The goals of Spring to Dance are loftier than just a simple marketing scheme.
Recalling Uthoff’s early thoughts on the St. Louis dance scene, Spring to Dance puts the local dancers on a stage with the best of the best, and pushes them to keep up. His role is not to condescend, but to elevate the home companies and inspire them to do more. It can be easy for any regional dance company to fall into a pattern of complacency – partly because they aren’t challenged and partly because the patrons don’t know better. For Uthoff, it’s not about butts in seats, but rather a refusal to accept the status quo. So perhaps St. Louis can teach a lesson to us all…
As the Spring to Dance Festival gets underway, I’ll be tag-teaming coverage with a St. Louis native and fellow dance blogger Jessica Ruhlin. Be sure to check out Bodies Never Lie for additional news and reviews!
Correction April 2, 2018: An earlier version of this article incorrectly titled the New Dance Horizons series New Horizons in Dance.