Britain’s neglected creator
Antony Tudor choreography
“The Leaves are Fading”/“Lilac Garden”/“Offenbach
in the Underworld”
The two great choreographers produced by British ballet have both been neglected here lately. Luckily, Frederick Ashton’s centenary is compelling his restoration to the repertoire, and—presumably by coincidence—this year’s Edinburgh Festival chose his near contemporary and rival Antony Tudor for special attention. Of course they had to look overseas for the main contribution. The choice fell on Ballet West, all the way from Salt Lake City, Utah (a city, amazingly, doubly represented in the Festival’s dance programmes, thanks to an Alwin Nikolais bill by its Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company).
Ballet West proved apt to the task: no exceptional dancers but forty able performers who worked well together with no weak links. The centre-piece of their triple bill was the most familiar work, although even “Lilac Garden” isn’t seen so often nowadays. Created on Ballet Rambert in 1936, it was not Tudor’s first success but went further than any predecessor in demonstrating his genius and establishing a new genre which Marie Rambert defined as “ballet psychologique”.
You remember the situation? Caroline, before a marriage of convenience, tries to say goodbye to her real lover; meanwhile the man she must marry shrugs off an importunate episode from his own past. The way Tudor set, and sometimes contrasted, the Chausson music (“Poème”) is well established, bringing out the individuality of the principals and sometimes the other party-goers too, especially the one identifiable as Caroline’s sister. Ballet West’s two casts both expressed the theme well without greatly illuminating it. I miss the original designs of Hugh Stevenson (who also helped define the ballet’s action) but I seem to remember that trade union restrictions kept American productions from using them, and Peter Cazalet’s replacements are not too far removed.
That’s from Tudor’s first creative decade; “The Leaves are Fading” is from his last (American Ballet Theatre, 1975, led then by Gelsey Kirkland and Jonas Kage, who is now Ballet West’s enterprising director). British comparisons will mostly be with the Royal Ballet’s recent production. I’ll not say Ballet West’s dancers are better than the Royal’s, but they seem to understand better what this lyrical suite is about, and to get the relationships clearer. The idea of a woman remembering youthful love comes over well, and this version of Ming Cho Lee’s setting (borrowed from the National Ballet of Canada) looks better than Covent Garden’s.
The programme’s big rarity, “Offenbach in the Underworld”, is new to the company, and I wonder who thought of producing this middle-period piece (created for the Philadelphia Ballet, 1954, although the present version was a revision the next year for the Canadian Ballet). Edinburgh commissioned the revival, excellently staged by Donald Mahler.
Tudor originally used the highly popular score adapted by Manuel Rosenthal from an Offenbach operetta for Leonide Massine’s “Gaité parisienne”, but the Canadian conductor George Crum made an equally attractive new arrangement for the revised production. Tudor’s ballet, like Massine’s, offers episodes of flirtation between characters in a late 19th century café (although Yenichi Yamaguchi’s setting makes it look more like the long lost “Bar aux Folies-bergère” by Ninette de Valois). Tudor doesn’t introduce such distinctive characters as Massine did, but his treatment holds together better as a continuing whole, and his long sequence of can-can dances provides a rowdier climax.
This also is the work where Ballet West’s dancers give their most individual performances. Kristin Hakala and Maggie Wright in successive casts both made a lively, and in the end rather touching, portrait of the Operetta Star who is eagerly pursued by His Imperial Excellency (Christopher Ruud or Hua Zhang, both amusingly pompous), also a painter who likes all the girls and a swaggering young officer. As her chief rival, the Queen of the Carriage Trade, Annie Breneman and Kelly Ocharzak offered ample compensation. But it isn’t only these well defined characters who give the ballet its vivacity. Smaller roles such as the debutante and Madame la Patronne catch the eye, and so do various local ladies and young men who emerge if only momentarily from the ensembles.
At first sight, “Offenbach in the Underworld” can seem a slight although amusing ballet. But I watched three performances in two days and it came over more strongly each time. The author of the Festival’s programme note about Tudor’s Unique Dance Legacy must have been off form when he came up with the theory that Tudor lost his creativity after 1943. I will insist that two of the works on this programme prove him wrong, and I can think of plenty of other late Tudors I would like to see again (or even a couple for the first time). Meanwhile I am grateful to the Festival and to Ballet West for remedying our Tudor starvation.
Less so, however, for the Festival’s other Tudor production, “Dark Elegies”, given by Rambert Dance Company as part of a triple bill, “Mahler and Dance”, presenting—uniquely—three of that composer’s song cycles in dance form. Their new “Songs of a Wayfarer” by Kim Brandstrup seemed pointless to me, and Peter Darrell’s “Five Ruckert Songs”, a Rambert premiere, has been better danced and in better designs by its originator, Scottish Ballet. So “Elegies”, created for Rambert in 1937, should have been a climax, with its tragic representation of families who lost their children in some disaster.
After past legal disputes, Rambert presents its own version of the work, based on the memories, notes and films of earlier casts. This differs from the Tudor estate’s authorised version based on his 1940 staging for Ballet Theatre. Rambert claims that it is “determined to keep its production close to the original” created for the company. Fine, but in that case my memory, and that of others, suggests a need for less obfuscatory lighting and for the movement to be less swift and light. None of the present company dancers, I think, has previous experience of Tudor, and it shows. More work could doubtless help—but ludicrously the ballet is not scheduled for any further performances.