writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

29 September 2003.
By Mindy Aloff
Copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff

Psychologically probing, physically exacting, unpredictably conjoined with their musical scores, frequently dependent for full effect on sets and costumes that are constructed with consummate delicacy—the ballets of Antony Tudor can be as challenging to revive and produce as the classical dance spectacles of Asia. Since Tudor’s death, in 1987, one rarely finds them on the boards, even at American Ballet Theatre, the choreographer’s home company in the U.S. for nearly a half century. For a while, the principal curator of Tudor’s work was Sallie Wilson, one of his most trusted dancers at A.B.T. Wilson is no longer working with that company; instead, her revivals, along with one or two by Diana Byer, can be found at the little, impecunious yet high-minded New York Theatre Ballet, which Byer directs and which, last spring, put on a fascinating all-Tudor program at the Florence Gould Hall of the Alliance-Française. Its performance detail—especially in Tudor’s signature work, Jardin aux Lilas—stopped the breath. No other current American production I’ve seen of this plangent hommage to the Edwardian era of Tudor’s parents even remotely approaches the richness and exactitude of the characterizations by the N.Y.T.B. Still, as Tobi Tobias observed in the Village Voice, a Tudor ballet requires not only great coaching but also great dancers to unfold its full wonders; and despite the loveliness of their performances, the artists of N.Y.T.B. were not freed as theatrical presences by their accuracy: they simply do not offer the Olympian stamina and virtuosity of their colleagues at A.B.T. or, historically, at the New York City Ballet. (Tudor brought several works to N.Y.C.B. in the 1950s and early ‘60s, including Jardin aux Lilas, restaged there as Lilac Garden. However, N.Y.C.B. has not revived them in decades and seems unlikely to try.)

So one looks to A.B.T., with its roster of powerhouse principals and soloists, for its Tudor wing of masterpieces, most of them made for that company: somehow, one hopes, the power will be alchemically converted to a gaslit finesse through the rehearsal process. For decades, a dream of Tudor’s dancers and fans has been a full-scale revival of the master’s Renaissance-fine one-act Romeo and Juliet (1943), set to Antal Dorati’s orchestrations of Frederick Delius and designed by the beloved classicist Eugene Berman. (The historian David Vaughan has noted that the original plan had been to have Salvador Dalí design the ballet, an idea that Tudor decisively, and quite wisely, vetoed in Berman’s favor.) A.B.T. last presented Tudor’s Romeo in the 1970s. Is it possible to revive the work?

At “Antony Tudor and American Ballet Theatre,” the September 28-29 program that opened this fall’s “Works & Process” series in the jewelbox auditorium of the Guggenheim Museum, A.B.T.’s current Tudor stager, Donald Mahler, muttering something about “several million dollars,” suggested that the only thing stopping the revival was the cost of its production. Can this be right? One thinks of such recent A.B.T. white elephants as The Pied Piper, a ballet so bad that, when I attended, it was loudly booed and that, according to press reporting, sucked up well over a million dollars. There must be more roadblocks than the money. For one thing, A.B.T. already has a cash-cow, evening-length Romeo and Juliet in active repertory—Kenneth Macmillan’s 1965 version, to the familiar score by Serge Prokofiev. (Note: Prokofiev’s music, written in 1935, was given its première in 1938 in a balletic staging by the Brno Opera House in Czechoslovakia. The more famous choreography by Leonid Lavrovsky, who contributed ideas to the scenario that Prokofiev developed in composing the music, wasn’t presented until the Kirov staging of 1940; the Bolshoi staging didn’t follow until 1946, after Lavrovsky had become the Bolshoi’s director. None of these stagings, or the music independently, were known in Europe or the U.S. until the Bolshoi’s tours of the mid- and late 1950s.)

Yet, even if the money were found and the choreography rediscovered, the biggest obstacle to bringing back Tudor’s Romeo may be the uncertainty over the answer to the question of to whom the ballet would appeal—an uncertainty for much of the Tudor canon now. While, at their best, Tudor’s ballets are of the highest order, with their intricate step patterns and gestures packed with specific meanings, their intensely nuanced characters and the social complexities of their stories—so obsessed with distinctions among classes that no longer really exist—his work is not for everyone who loves the Kirov's Swan Lake or Miami City Ballet's Jewels, and it is certainly alien to whatever segment of the public A.B.T. expects to bring into the Met with its George Harrison tribute or its recent I-led-three-lives-and-now-I’m-going-to-Hell-for-it staging of Carmina Burana by Stanton Welch. To market Tudor successfully in 2003 would take the genius of P.T. Barnum, and even he might be brought up short by the line in the early program note for Lilac Garden that the heroine, Caroline, is about to enter a “marriage of convenience.” Given today’s tax structure, aren’t all marriages convenient? Assigning each ticket buyer to speed-read The House of Mirth or Portrait of a Lady prior to attending the theater theoretically might help the situation—whose problems are related to gigantic effacements in American culture and education at large—but, then, one would run into the conundrum that some people who attend the ballet do so in order not to have to read.

Well, life goes on at 8 p.m., and it’s a gesture toward admirable ideals that A.B.T. is attempting to revive one of its Tudor ballets each year, even though the theatrical context that might help a general audience—the ballets of Michel Fokine, which used to be a staple of A.B.T.’s rep and which Tudor, himself, looked to as lighthouses for his own nocturnal voyages into the depths of the human heart—seem now to be unavailable to the company, evidently owing to demands of one sort or another by the Fokine estate. At the Guggenheim, we saw members of A.B.T.’s junior Studio Company in a tender and deeply affecting performance of Continuo, a storyless etude for three couples, set to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, that Tudor created in 1971 for his students at The Juilliard School. Still, although Continuo makes an excellent case for Tudor’s genius on its own—among the ballet’s amazements is that, in the presence of the dancing, the brutally overused Pachelbel canon sounds as if it had just been composed—Tudor’s rigorous choreographic patterns look a little more austere than they might to an audience that had just seen Fokine’s Les Sylphides, where a similar kind of storyless idyll is given a local habitation in a glade, and the dancers are provided either romantic tutus or, in the case of the lone danseur, a Romantic poet’s flowing shirt.

At “Works & Process,” we also saw members of A.B.T. in excerpts from an upcoming revival at City Center of the 1942 Pillar of Fire, to Arnold Schoenberg’s early, tonal Verklärte Nacht (“Transfigured Night”). Julie Kent, one of three ballerinas who are scheduled to dance the central role of the forlorn and despised Hagar, performed it with weeping-willow resignation. (The other Hagars will be Amanda McKerrow and Gillian Murphy.) For this excerpt from Pillar, the dancers were dressed in the perfectly splendid Edwardian costumes originally designed by Jo Mielziner. (Mahler pointed out that Erica Fishbach, as The Older Sister, was actually wearing the original garment from ’42, rather than a rebuilt facsimile.) However, it was announced that the costumes for the November revival have been redesigned, which makes the heart of a Tudor fan skip a beat. Bravely, the program’s moderator Susan Jaffe, a retired A.B.T. principal, posed understated yet enabling questions regarding Tudor’s rehearsal methods, which could be hazardous to the psyche, of Mahler and Michael Owen, another retired A.B.T. principal who described himself as “the last male dancer to work with Tudor on all the roles that he [Tudor] had danced himself.” From my notes on the conversation:

—Owen: “At age 18 or 19, I was scheduled for one hour of rehearsal alone with Tudor, working on, literally, walking. I walked for two hours. He got you, he worked you, he stripped you down. The ten steps are the walk [performed by the Friend of the Family character] right before the end of the pas de deux in Pillar of Fire.” Owen went on to compare this to the walking on rice paper that classical Asian dancer-actors perform.

—Owen: “Tudor was like a leprechaun: he could be very biting, but he also had a twinkle.”

—Mahler: “His work comes from inside out. He became a Zen Buddhist. In his early days, he studied Japanese dancing. He, himself, was really a consummate actor.
“One day, he said to three boys [in class], ‘I want you to be a young girl in love.’ Not one of them could do it, and he showed them how. Afterward, Miss Craske [Margaret Craske, the redoubtable teacher of Cecchetti ballet, who had taught Tudor], who had been watching, came up and said, ‘The trouble with you boys is, you’re afraid to make fools of yourselves.’”

—Mahler: “To understand what Tudor did, you have to have seen a lot of movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. . .Bette Davis. . .what they called ‘body language.’ A lot of Lilac Garden is similar to ballroom dancing. For one staging I did of it, I went out and rented Fred and Ginger movies [for the dancers to study]. You can’t go out and just do glissade-assemblé.”

—Mahler: “Tudor wanted lifts to come from nowhere, out of the movement. He didn’t want to see you work on it. . . .He didn’t want to see any preparations because, in life, you don’t have preparations.”

--Owen: “Tudor died in 1987, two weeks before A.B.T. opened at the Met. It was the only time at the new Met that the fire curtain fell down, and it fell almost at the exact time Tudor died.”

So you can see that the Guggenheim evening would have been informative, even if Jaffe hadn’t also screened a portion of an interview that Martha Myers conducted decades ago with the choreographer for the television program, A Time to Dance (in which he lauded Fokine) and hadn’t gone on to include two passages of Nora Kaye demonstrating Tudor’s points for that show. In one passage of danced comparisons, Kaye articulates the difference between the rectitude of the way the spine is held in a Petipa ballet and the plastic fluency it enjoys in Fokine’s Les Sylphides. In another passage, she performs the opening moments of Pillar of Fire, when Hagar, seated on the front steps of her house, lifts her face and, in doing so, articulates by microscopic changes in her shoulders, neck, mouth, and eyes, every tension in her life. After seeing this clip, it’s remarkable that any dancer today would attempt the part. Kaye makes every tiny muscular change crystal clear and puts them in sequence, like dotted lines for the audience to connect. It bespeaks a physical and mental performance discipline on the order of Bharata Natyam dancing.

The program closed with a performance by A.B.T. principal Amanda McKerrow and former A.B.T. soloist John Gardner of the central pas de deux from Tudor’s great, last retrospective ballet, The Leaves Are Fading, made for A.B.T. in 1972. McKerrow had worked with Tudor directly in this dance, and her performance of it is an exemplary tribute to the silverpoint musical and emotional nuance of which Tudor’s late choreography was capable. A propos Leaves, which is rarely (if ever) performed by A.B.T. in its entirety now, Owen—who, with Marianna Tcherkassky, was originally cast in the third of the ballet’s bouquet of pas de deux—observed: “Each pas de deux has its own facets of love. Working with Tudor was a spiritual experience.” Mahler added: “It was an abstract ballet about people. I think all of his ballets are about love—love denied, love accomplished, love longed for. That’s why they’re so deep.” —Mindy Aloff

“Antony Tudor and American Ballet Theatre”
Works & Process
Peter B. Lewis Theater of the Guggenheim Museum
28-29 September 2003
Panel: Susan Jaffe (moderator, former principal dancer, A.B.T.), Donald Mahler (ballet master, Antony Tudor Trust), Michael Owen (former principal dancer, A.B.T.)
Program: Continuo (1971, Canon in D by Pachelbel)
Dancers (from American Ballet Theatre Studio Company):
Melanie Hamrick, Blaine Hoven, Daniel Keene, Jennifer Lee, Caitlin Seither, Roman Zhurbin
Excerpt from Pillar of Fire (1942, Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schoenberg, costumes by Jo Mielziner)
Dancers (from A.B.T.): Julie Kent (Hagar), Xiomara Reyes (The Younger Sister), Erica Fishbach (The Older Sister), David Hallberg (Friend of the Family), Misty Copeland, Ashley Ellis, Yuriko Kajiya, Anne Milewski, Luciana Paris (Lovers-in-Innocence)
Excerpt from The Leaves Are Fading (1975, Cypresses by Antonin Dvorák)
Dancers: John Gardner (former soloist, A.B.T.), Amanda McKerrow (A.B.T.)

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 1
September 29, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Mindy Aloff



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003