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Take 5: Dance St. Louis' Michael Uthoff on an epic song and an epic collaboration

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 18, 2013 - You may not know that you know "Carmina Burana," but you probably do. “O Fortuna,” the opening from Carl Orff’s composition from 1937, is featured in lots of movies, from “The Hunt for Red October,” to “Natural Born Killers” to the guinea pig special opps flick “G Force.”

“They don’t know what they’re listening to,” says Michael Uthoff, artistic and executive director of Dance St. Louis, “but they’ve heard it.” 

And with a new collaborative production from Dance St. Louis featuring Nashville Ballet, University of Missouri-St. Louis Orchestra and Singers, Bach Society of St. Louis and St. Louis Children’s Choir, audiences will see something totally new. 

As the final preparations get underway for the huge production, Uthoff took a little time to speak with the St. Louis Beacon about what audiences can expect from the production.

Carmina Burana is already so big in the way it feels, and this production seems to make it even bigger, with 120 singers, 60 musicians and 40 dancers on stage together, coming from St. Louis and Nashville. To begin, can you just tell us how this collaboration came about?

Uthoff: Some years ago with John Hylton of UMSL, we were talking about doing something that would be collaborative in nature and we felt that this particular work, "Carmina Burana," certainly encompassed all the possible collaborations we could imagine, so when the original production we wanted to do was not available, I went looking about for one that would meet all of our wishes for grandeur, for quality, for spectacle, for everything. And we came about the Nashville Ballet production, which we were enthralled with, and we decided, OK, let’s go, let’s put it together. And it’s part of our mission to try and make as much possible involvement with the community.  

Many of us are familiar with this piece, will we feel that same sense of familiarity while watching, or does this offer something unexpected?

Uthoff: Oh, it offers something unexpected. The music will carry you to another level, and then all of the sudden you’ll have some striking visuals that you never imagined possible. It’s not all about gods and people running in on horses and killing each other ... it achieves its own level of sophistication. 

I’d imagine that the biggest challenge of all this would just be logistics in gathering all these artists together. Is that right, or have their been other challenges in staging something of this scope?

Uthoff:You look at it like a puzzle. Each section like the orchestra works, the chorus works, the children’s chorus works, the dancers work. The puzzle becomes the last week when you put them on stage. I think the biggest issue’s not how are they going to work together, that’s pretty simple. It’s how do we get them in and out of the theater without killing each other, that’ll be like 300 people walking backstage. That I think is the biggest logistics problem.

Have you ever done anything like this, where you’ve been able to bring these puzzle pieces together?

Uthoff:When I was with the Hartford Ballet and also with Ballet Arizona, I did a production of "Carmina Burana" that I produced myself, which was a different version than this. We were in total control, we were partnering with the community as far as hiring the chorus, hiring the orchestra, but it was at that time a Hartford Ballet production, not a joint thing with anybody else ....This has a little bit less of the creativity because it’s essentially a search for the right production that we want the audience to be enthralled by, and then it’s convincing the partners to embark on a serious adventure with us, and realize that this is not just a past time, this is a magic moment and a magisterial work that we can all work for together.

What else are you working on at Dance St. Louis that you’re excited about this year?

Uthoff:No sooner does the curtain come down on "Carmina Burana," New York City Ballet MOVEScomes in two weeks later. It’s taken us seven years to be able to afford them, and certainly they are like the mother ship of ballet in the world, they’re the greatest ballet company that has survived for decades already. I’m just hoping that audiences will rush to it and see it.