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Jack Anderson

The Importance of Antony Tudor


A scene from New York Theater Ballet's Lilac Garden from Antony Tudor. Photo by Richard Termine.

Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration
March 29-30, 2008
The Juilliard School, Lincoln Center
"Masterworks of the 20th Century"
Juilliard Dance
March 29, 2008
The Juilliard School, Lincoln Center
New York Theatre Ballet
April 4, 11,12, 2008
Gould Hall, 55 East 59th Street
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, April 18, 2008

According to the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, 27 companies scheduled performances of Tudor ballets between 2007 and 2009. That's a lot. But it's not enough. The American dance world needs Tudor's ballets, and needs them now.

That bald assertion is prompted by the centennial of this great British-born, but for much of his life American-based, choreographer (1908-1997), and events in his honor have included the Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration presented at the Juilliard School by the Tudor Ballet Trust and spring performances by the New York Theatre Ballet, Diana Byer's fine little group which has done so much to keep Tudor's choreography alive.

The most obvious reason for reviving Tudor is that his ballets are good. We tend to think that there are not all that many of them. Yet, although he was not as prolific as some other important modern choreographers, there may be more available, or potentially available, Tudor ballets than we might hastily assume. And they can add welcome variety to our repertories.

Works by other distinguished choreographers may have become so familiar that newer choreographers influenced, or even overpowered, by them as role models may find themselves grinding out pale imitations of their works. Martha Graham's devotees have given us a host of lugubrious symbol-ridden dance-dramas. George Balanchine and Merce Cunningham are still inspiring dull abstractions. And Twyla Tharp's nervous energy has infected some of her slavish choreographic admirers with epidemics of twitchiness. But Tudor's ballets, less known nowadays, remain worthy of fresh study, and it remains to be seen how young choreographers might react to them and how they might affect today's dance audiences.

Anyone assuming that the Juilliard panel discussions, demonstrations, workshops, and performances would be polite academic tributes would have been amazed at the excitement generated by those events. The participating dancers, critics, scholars, and teachers were obviously energized by their subject matter.

Former Tudor students who shared memories of his classes taught young dancers some of his combinations, many of them remarkably harmonious. Yet Tudor, a keen pedagogical analyst, wanted students to be analytical thinkers as well as elegant movers. Typically, Bonnie Mathis recalls him occasionally asking students, "What is the high point of this combination?" And Elizabeth Sawyer, his longtime accompanist, remembered how he always tried to make sure that "the whole body is alive."

Many conference participants shared memories of Tudor's idiosyncrasies. Joseph W. Polisi, who is writing a biography of the composer William Schuman, his predecessor as Juilliard's president, described the odd way in which Tudor collaborated with Schuman on "Undertow" (1945), Tudor's first ballet to a commissioned score. Tudor never told Schuman the story of his ballet. Instead, he gave him poetic and sometimes enigmatic suggestions about what sort of music he desired: for instance, a passage suggesting damp leaves on a street, or "a four-minute essay on fear." It was only when Schuman attended the dress rehearsal that he discovered "Undertow" concerned the making of a sex criminal. But maybe Tudor was more shrewd than eccentric when he made his demands. What would Schuman, who had never before written a dance score, have thought if Tudor had bluntly asked him, "How about a ballet about a sex crime?"

It remains worth noting that Schuman was not only the first, but also the last, living composer with whom Tudor collaborated. But Schuman did go on to write other dance works, including some for Martha Graham. His "Undertow" is a strong piece, one that caused a woman after a Philadelphia performance to inform her companion, "This was written during his crazy period when he jumped into the Rhine," thereby confusing William Schuman with Robert Schumann.

Some speakers at Juilliard acknowledged that Tudor could be notoriously irascible. Nevertheless, they insisted that by his strong measures Tudor hoped to stimulate dancers and make them think and feel on stage. Of course, these dancers respected Tudor and had grown used to his peculiarities. Those with less favorable impressions of Tudor were presumably not at the conference, or if they were they kept silent. As for the content of Tudor's ballets, an admiring Donald Mahler said, "The mistake people make is to think his ballets are dark. They are really uplifting." Moreover, he insisted, "Tudor's ballets are about love, something missing from so many ballets today."

He's probably right. Think of how Tudor views love in some of his works. To mention only a few examples, we have love thwarted in "Jardin aux Lilas," love leading to tragedy in "Romeo and Juliet," love pathologically twisted in "Undertow," love ultimately triumphant in "Pillar of Fire," love united with grief in "Dark Elegies," love remembered in "The Leaves Are Fading."

There were opportunities to see, as well as to talk about, Tudor's choreography. The daytime Juilliard sessions included several simply staged, but meticulously rehearsed, productions. Dancers from the JKO School of American Ballet Theatre frisked through "Little Improvisations" with a youthful insouciance that also had occasionally malicious undertones, reminding us that children are not necessarily always innocents. Ballet Theatre's ABT II company brought silken smoothness to "Continuo." Best of all, New York Theatre Ballet emphasized both the acid wit and the pathos of "Judgment of Paris," and it was wonderful to see the many small gestures of this "chamber ballet," so evocative of Toulouse-Lautrec, stand out clearly in an intimate setting.

On the evening of March 29, Juilliard Dance presented a program called "Masterworks of the 20th Century," with admirable accounts of Martha Graham's "Appalachian Spring" and "There is a Time," by José Limón (whose own centennial is also this year), as well as a "Dark Elegies," staged by Donald Mahler, which convincingly conveyed a sense that its grieving people were passing from stormy mourning into serene resignation.

Two works by Tudor were danced by New York Theatre Ballet on April 12. With its gestural subtleties and emotional shadows, "Jardin aux Lilas," coached with infinite care by Sallie Wilson, once again seemed a Henry James story told in dance. And it was touching to see Elena Zahlmann and Kyle Coffman in Airi Hynninen's staging of the leavetaking pas de deux from "Romeo and Juliet," a delicate scene in which Tudor reminds us that these star-cross'd lovers are really only kids.

The company also performed Matthew Neenan's new "Game Two," a clever piece, although perhaps over-crowded with steps; the ingenious pas de deux from William Dollar's "The Combat," in which prancing legs become horses and outstretched arms are lances, and, as the company's tribute to Limón, Sarah Stackhouse's staging of the "Suite from 'Mazurkas,'" a 1958 dance to Chopin piano music that seems in tone and occasionally even in gestures so prophetic of Jerome Robbins's "Dances at a Gathering" of 1969 as to make one wonder if Robbins ever saw Limón's work.

Although 27 troupes may be dancing Tudor, conference participants pointed out that companies are often suspicious of his ballets. I fear that much of this neglect is due to company directors and publicists. Speakers repeatedly said that they have heard that "Tudor doesn't sell tickets." Well, why not? Presumably, back in the 40's when many of his works were new, Tudor ballets sold enough tickets both in New York and on tour that they stayed in repertory. But those were the days of mixed bills, when companies would schedule programs of many different one-act ballets arranged in many different orders. Today, companies promote, and their audiences may be coming to expect, full-evening multi-act spectacles, often visually grandiose, but dramatically and choreographically insubstantial. Audiences weaned on such fare might be startled by stronger stuff. We may be dumbing down our audiences.

Presumably, people could be persuaded to like Tudor if companies would only make intelligent efforts to increase audience understanding. An exasperated Juilliard panelist spoke of how one company tried to promote "Dark Elegies" in its brochures by showing photos of tombstones. But who would want to go to a ballet about tombstones? In any case, "Elegies" is ultimately about survivors, not victims.

American Ballet Theatre is the company which could be expected to put Tudor before the public most strongly, since it's the company with which he was usually associated after he came here. Yet even though it does stage some Tudor revivals and Kevin McKenzie, its artistic director, spoke eloquently about Tudor at the Centennial, ABT's Tudor programming has been timid. We did see bits of "Undertow," commissioned for Ballet Theatre, but not by that company. Instead, this was the first installment of an attempt to revive the entire ballet for students of the Juilliard Dance Division. And why was it the New York Theatre Ballet and not ABT, which created it, that offered a bit from the now legendary "Romeo and Juliet?"

Other ballets are certainly worth investigating by Ballet Theatre and other troupes. For instance, there's "Echoing of Trumpets," an anti-war prison-camp ballet that might seem especially relevant at this time of prisoner-abuse scandals. There's the mystical, and somewhat unnerving, "Shadowplay." And, surely, some British dancers must still remember "Knight Errant," a reputedly sophisticated comedy-drama created for the Royal Ballet Touring Company in 1968 that has never been seen hereabouts.

But "Tudor doesn't sell tickets!" the bleating cry goes up. Well, dear directors and publicists, find ways to make Tudor sell tickets: after all, assignments like that are parts of your jobs. Audiences may find riches once they discover, or rediscover, Tudor.

He is the choreographer who, as Hilda Morales said during the Juilliard panels, "taught me to dance from my soul." Eliot Feld remarked, "He took ballet and made it totally unacademic. He didn't do arabesques, he reinvented the arabesque." And the dance historian Judith Chazin-Bennahum said that Tudor could portray "human relationships in the most profound and devastating ways."

Any choreographer about whose ballets such things can still be said is surely one whose ballets should still be danced. The participants in the Juilliard events obviously cared deeply about Tudor and they wanted us to care, as well. We ought to.

(If you wish to offer Jack Anderson any comments on this essay you can reach him at jandewriter@yahoo.com)

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