A Tudor Dynasty
Balanchine and the American Ballet Theater are no longer synonymous.
Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By PIA CATTON
When a choreographer's centennial year rolls around, the public can count on a few sure things. There will be at least one celebratory video montage, plus one earnest, yet chummy panel discussion. A few rarely seen ballets will be performed throughout a year that will culminate in a blowout evening devoted to the choreographer's work.
All this was duly bestowed upon Antony Tudor (1908-1987) last year, but at American Ballet Theater, something else happened, too. In the process of learning Tudor's meticulously detailed, emotionally demanding ballets, the dancers seemed to embrace the difficult aesthetic. By all evidence, they "got" it. So much so that it's fair to say ABT now dances Anthony Tudor better than it dances George Balanchine.
Tudor is something of an unsung figure in the history of ballet in America. Even though the English-born choreographer spent the better part of his career on these shores, he did not gain the popular name recognition of Balanchine or Jerome Robbins. As a result, an all-Tudor program doesn't exactly spark a box-office stampede; to wit, ABT offered its all-Tudor blowout evening only at New York's City Center, but the company knew better than to take this show on the road.
ABT has a long history with Tudor. In 1940 the company (then known as Ballet Theater) brought him over from England to stage several of his works. He stayed on and would come to hold several posts within the company. He later taught at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, as well as at the Juilliard School.
His sensibility would help shape ABT, but his ballets are not easy. Tudor was arguably the first to introduce a psychological element into ballets. His characters aren't the stuff of classic ballets-the swans or girl ghosts (Gisele) who live to dance a prince to death. They are young women tormented by guilt and fascination with sex, such as Hagar in Pillar of Fire (1942). They are well-to-do folk who must give up their lovers for a marriage of convenience-and then suffer through a social occasion where all parties are present, as in
A Tudor ballet requires artistry from the dancers and patience from the audience. On any given night, one or both camps can be found wanting. The difficulty for the dancers is that the precision details serve as outlets for geysers of emotion. Every step must be performed with a sense of theater fueled by a psychological understanding of what the character is going through.
ABT principal Julie Kent described a good example from Jardin aux Lilas in a celebratory video montage: Caroline, the character who is giving up her lover for The Man She Must Marry (Tudor's character names tend to help the plot), often puts her hand to the side of her face. But the hand is at a specific, awkward angle. Imagine shaking hands with someone. Now draw your right hand back and place your right palm at your right cheek-with the fingers pointing forward and the thumb near your ear. It may not feel natural, but onstage, it says a lot.
On some level, though, that shouldn't be so exceptional. Dancers are professionals who should be able to express themselves in movement. True. But these ballets were made in a time when theatrical artistry held more sway than athleticism-and the audiences of the time rewarded that depth of emotion. More recent generations of ballet dancers are less like thespians and more like Olympians-stronger, faster, higher. Through greater strength and technique, their powerful bodies have upped the ante; today, the crowd expects to go wild for tricky turns and splashy moves. The thing is, there are no circus tricks in Tudor.
Which is what makes ABT's success with this choreographer all the more encouraging. Principal dancer Gillian Murphy is a dancer of supreme technique who can make the classic 32 fouettés (with doubles sprinkled in, thus making the crowd go wild) look like a cakewalk. And yet, when she dances Pillar of Fire, the audience is hushed into a sense of awe. She has come to own the role of Hagar, a repressed middle sister who takes herself to a house of ill repute and then finds redemption in a good man. Murphy plays it both achingly hot and "cool as the other side of the pillow."
The Tudor works give talented dancers room to explore what they can do onstage. Xiomara Reyes and Gennadi Saveliev made a deeply affecting pair in the farewell duet from Tudor's Romeo and Juliet, which is set to music by Frederick Delius. Kent and Kristi Boone both exhibited glamorous sorrow in Jardin aux Lilas. The young cast that danced Continuo, a ballet Tudor made in 1971 for his students, was promising.
Part of what helped is that ABT brought in some top-notch dancers who were specialists in these ballets. Pillar of Fire and Continuo were staged by Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, a husband-and-wife team of Tudor experts and former ABT dancers. Judgment of Paris (1938) is a light, funny skit that casts the three muses as prostitutes dancing in a French café for a sauced boulevardier. It was staged by Diana Byer, a former Tudor student at Juilliard who now runs the tiny but noble New York Theater Ballet.
Dance is unusual in that, after a choreographer's death, the nuances of the work must be passed from dancer to dancer. The steps can be preserved on videotape, but the creator's intentions, imagery, and ideas are rarely written down. Like the book memorizers in Fahrenheit 451, dancers take pains to transfer their treasures over to those who understand the value. This time around, that transfer yielded splendid results.
Pia Catton is a writer in New York.