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Jack Anderson

Tudor and After at American Ballet Theatre

Tudor and After at American Ballet Theatre
American Ballet Theatre
New York City Center, West 55th Street Manhattan
October 21-November 2, 2008
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, November 14, 2008

American Ballet Theatre gave audiences much to applaud during its fall season, especially the productions of its Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration. In fact, the Tudor works were so good and so well danced that one could feel disappointed even while applauding: there simply wasn't enough Tudor to see. If this was not a celebration on the grand scale of the retrospectives that the New York City Ballet has mounted in the past to honor George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, we still could be grateful.

Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that Tudor was represented by only five ballets ("Jardin aux Lilas," "Judgment of Paris," "Pillar of Fire," "Continuo," and "The Leaves Are Fading") and a pas de deux from a sixth, "Romeo and Juliet." There was little attempt at choreographic archaeology, the one unearthing of a treasure from the past being the Farewell duet from "Romeo," a sequence difficult to excerpt well, for it is clearly part of a ballet which tells its story through an unbroken flow of movements.


Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg in the pas de deux from "Romeo and Juliet" (Romeo’s Farewell) by American Ballet Theatre atNew York City Center. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Staging Tudor's "Romeo" has long been a thorny issue. Like many balletgoers, I have wondered why the complete work cannot be revived, for I have been told that notation scores and films exist of much of it, and there are dancers around who once performed it who may remember enough to fill in the blanks. The "Romeo" plot may now be a balletic cliché, yet this "Romeo" is unlike other "Romeo" ballets. The music by Delius chosen as accompaniment makes Tudor's retelling of Shakespeare more intimate and lyrical than most versions to the grandiose familiar Prokofiev score (at least, that's how I remember Tudor's production) and, again as I recall, Eugene Berman's designs are gorgeous. But whenever cries go up for a complete "Romeo," Ballet Theatre officials counter that a revival would be horrendously expensive. I suspect it would be. Nevertheless, in recent years Ballet Theatre has lavished money on a number of grandiose projects that proved to be duds (for instance, the designs for the recent "Sleeping Beauty"). So why not find a place in the budget for "Romeo?"

Without digging around too deeply into a possibly unrecoverable past (we'll now probably never know what "Shadow of the Wind" and "La Gloire" were like), there are still a number of worthy Tudor works that Ballet Theatre should be able to do. I'll omit "Dim Lustre" from the list because, no matter who performs it, in my experience this ballet's sophistication eludes most present-day dancers. I'll also omit "Offenbach in the Underworld," because I've never found it particularly amusing. However, there is an ongoing project to revive "Undertow" at Juilliard. And then we have "Dark Elegies," "Gala Performance," "Shadowplay," and "Echoing of Trumpets" (eerily relevant at this time of prison-camp abuses). Tudor may not have been as prolific as, say, Balanchine or Massine, but given time and (yes, of course) money, a richer Tudor Centennial repertory could have been assembled. Fortunately, no doubt about it, the repertory we did see was worth cheering; it whetted the appetite for more.

Although Tudor is noted for big one-act works, two pieces shown by ABT were miniatures ("Continuo" and "Judgment of Paris"), thereby providing evidence of his choreographic range. He could be a fine creator of chamber ballets, as recent revivals by the enterprising New York Theatre Ballet have so effectively demonstrated. And although "Continuo" and "Judgment" are probably most effective on small stages, they did not look out of place at City Center. The plotless "Continuo" is unhurried and idyllic. In contrast, "Judgment" is as acidic as Toulouse-Lautrec in its depiction of a soused customer in a seedy café trying to choose between three disheveled "ladies of the evening" who have seen far too many evenings in their time. Despite their obvious dissimilarities, "Continuo" and "Judgment" can be paired together because they show an awareness of some of life's dualities, "Continuo" being a vision of romantic idealism, while "Judgment" is a ballet of disillusion. In ballet after ballet, Tudor presents images of one or another of these conditions, and sometimes both.

In "The Leaves Are Fading," a ballet of retrospection, a woman may be fondly envisioning a romantic past that may have existed only in her imagination. Although specific dramatic situations are vague, phrase by phrase this is a lovely work. But so many phrases keep gliding by that, for me at least, there is a sameness of choreographic texture here that eventually makes "Leaves" monotonous. Nevertheless, here is a ballet attesting to the lyrical, even the sentimental, side of a choreographer often hastily pigeonholed as a realist or even a cynic.

"Pillar of Fire" and "Jardin aux Lilas" are among Tudor's most powerful pieces of choreographic realism. Yet neither is totally realistic. Of course, given the nature of the art, one might wonder if any dance can ever be realistic in the way that plays and novels can be. But both "Pillar" and "Jardin" are realistic in the sense that they present believably real people in believably real settings. They tell quite different stories: baldly summarized, "Jardin" concerns a young woman marrying a man she does not love, "Pillar" concerns a young woman who fears she may never marry at all (or, to put the matter even more crudely, that she may never experience sexual satisfaction). But both ballets are alike in at least one important way: both involve keeping up appearances. And keeping up appearances can also involve keeping secrets.

Gillian Murphy in "Pillar of Fire" by American Ballet Theatre atNew York City Center . Photo by Gene Schiavone.

"Pillar" takes place in a once-respectable urban neighborhood that is sliding downhill economically and, as a result, in social respectability, as well. That is why Hagar's family is preoccupied with uprightness in both bodily posture and moral conduct. Tudor's ballets had multiple casts this fall, and because the choreography is complex, audiences had the pleasure of seeing different dancers interpret their roles in slightly different ways. The character in "Pillar" most concerned with propriety is the Eldest Sister, and Veronika Part emphasized her haughtiness. Maria Bystrova, in the same role, made a great show of this woman's surface primness; But her performance also hinted that she secretly envied how the Youngest Sister (Marian Butler) could seem so sweet and yet also be free and easy in her ways. That Youngest Sister even looked willing to be drawn into the world of the people in the House Opposite.

Just what is that house? A house of prostitution? Perhaps. But, just as likely, it could be a dilapidated house ready to fall apart inhabited by people with dilapidated morals. Its most conspicuous tenant is the loose and louche Young Man. Whatever one might think of his morals, this fellow moves with great freedom and pride. Jose Manuel Carreño made the character smolder and glower. In another cast, Marcelo Gomes, though believable, did not swagger quite enough. Carreño also made clear that the Young Man, though sexually alluring, was also callous and capable of cruelty.

Hagar, the heroine, is caught between the poles of respectability and amorality. Julie Kent's Hagar looked extremely withdrawn and repressed until, in a reckless lunge, she gave herself to the Young Man. In contrast, Gillian Murphy's Hagar was rigid, especially in her arms and shoulders, and when she rose to stand tall, she appeared to have turned to stone. But the occasional zigzag motions of her arms were physical signs of inner turmoil. Fortunately, the sense of caring that both David Hallberg and Gennadi Saveliev radiated as the Friend ultimately rescued Hagar from her distress. Hagar is saved by the love of the Friend, whose steadfastness is expressed in quiet, but firm, choreography based largely upon walking patterns.

Nothing saves Caroline from entering upon a marriage of convenience in "Jardin." The Man She Must Marry is the man she does marry in order to keep up social appearances. Although she has a Lover, he is powerless to save her. And he and Caroline must do all they can to hide their true feelings. Other characters also have secrets and concealed emotions. Thus Vitali Krauchenka (The Man She Must Marry) and Part (An Episode in His Past) always seemed to be struggling to preserve their dignity when their deep feelings threatened to boil over. When Kristi Boone, as the Episode, met Caroline, her look of faint disdain was fleeting, but meaningful. Melissa Thomas's Caroline was tremulous, and essentially helpless. But Kent's Caroline, even as she was trapped by the situation in which she found herself, was so alert as to give the impression that she was thinking of ways to surmount it. An ensemble of guests kept coming and going through this stylish garden party, some suspecting what was really going on, others unaware, yet at least faintly bothered by the unfathomable mysteries they perceived.

Julie Kent and Cory Stearns in "Jardin aux Lilas" by American Ballet Theatre atNew York City Center. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

"Jardin" is a compositional marvel. Its Chausson score is short, (no more than 20 minutes), yet without overstuffing it with events Tudor choreographically fills it with such a multitude of hinted disclosures, half-kept secrets, and threatened revelations that the air becomes electric. As a friend remarked after seeing "Jardin" for the first time, "This is Henry James in dance."

Tudor created ballets about human realities. These are not the only types of ballets worth creating, for there can be wonderful ballets in which dancers become mythological figures, symbolic archetypes, or sheer designs in space. To praise Tudor while denigrating other distinguished choreographers for not being compositionally like him is foolish. Instead, Tudor should be praised for making his realities believably real. Not all choreographers can do this today, some do not even appear to want to: repertories are impoverished in consequence.

Paloma Herrera and David Hallberg in"Overgrown Path" by American Ballet Theatre atNew York City Center. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Looking over the Ballet Theatre repertory, I was fascinated by some recent ballets and appalled by others because of the way their choreographers created, or failed to create, believable theatrical realities of their own. There was one ballet directly inspired by Tudor: Jiri Kylian's stormy "Overgrown Path" which, in contrast to the overtly narrative "Pillar" or "Jardin," resembled "The Leaves Are Fading" or "Dark Elegies" by being a plotless mood piece with dramatic implications. Here, to Janacek piano music, we have introspective meditations and emotional outbursts that gather power as the ballet proceeds. There are striking choreographic images: thus two men support a woman who keeps placing her hands before her eyes, as if unwilling to behold what lies ahead; during one intense duet, the woman suddenly vanishes upstage, and the final scene is a restless ensemble danced in silence. What literal meanings Kylian may have had in mind for any of his incidents were never disclosed, yet he always suggested they possessed significance, his ballet thereby acquiring integrity as well as ingenuity.

Unfortunately, whatever they claim their intentions may be, many choreographers seem preoccupied solely with ingenious steps. Lauri Stallings gave that impression in her new and inexplicably titled "Citizen," an assemblage of disjointed motions to music by Max Richter in which five dancers in glittery costumes by April McCoy that recalled those of circus acrobats kept twitching away in little convulsions. At one point, an ensemble of onlookers walked quietly on stage, only to disappear just as quietly, thereby displaying genuine curiosity in their arrival and, as far as I was concerned, great common sense in their departure. I wished I could have imitated them. Instead, I sat mentally biting my nails while wondering if Stallings had been influenced by Twyla Tharp, whose choreographic fidgets are sometimes exhilarating and sometimes annoying.

There were two Tharp ballets this fall. "Baker's Dozen" is casual elegance. Its slides, glides, and off-balance positions, though tricky, suggest easygoing confidence. The dancers ripple, as does the accompanying piano music by Willie "The Lion" Smith. But the interminable "Brief Fling" is a nuisance, a jumble of unabashedly peculiar attention-getting effects based upon distortions of classical ballet and Scottish dancing. Whereas "Baker's Dozen" celebrates being at ease in the world, the choreography of "Brief Fling" appears to do no more than to call attention to itself just for the sake of calling attention to itself.

Too many dances are like that these days. They're pointless. Having a point does not necessarily mean having a story or a "message." But it does mean offering something more than kinetic busy-ness, so that once the surface glitter of a piece wears off with familiarity there still remains something of substance to hold one's interest. Some of Tudor's ballets are long, some short, some serious, some light-hearted. But all are ballets with substance of some kind.

One work of substance not by Tudor that Ballet Theatre danced admirably this fall is Paul Taylor's "Company B," which at first glance might seem merely a romp to songs by the Andrews Sisters. But it's more than that. The costumes suggest the era of World War II, both that period's military and its civilian attire. And Taylor divides up space artfully, making the front of the stage the home front, while the back becomes the front line of battle. And mimetic battles do take place in the shadows upstage (as does an implicitly gay liaison for two soldiers) while merrymakers enjoy themselves down front. The juxtapositions of these disparate activities sometimes make the frolics look like slightly desperate attempts to escape the era's unpleasant realities, as in the "Pennsylvania Polka" when two partygoers dance heartily while soldiers march across the back of the stage and fall in battle. There are even moments when people near the front of the stage appear to be wounded or killed. Taylor is possibly pointing out here, and it is a sobering lesson, that war may be as inescapable for civilians as it is for soldiers. "Company B" mixes revelry with pathos; Tudor might well have approved.




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