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Glenn Tetley

Renaissance Man:  Glenn Tetley at 78

Interview by Karen Webb

Sometimes history exists in museums and archives and sometimes it’s being generat-ed in our own back yards. This issue, an interview with history-making choreographer Glen Tetley, who arrived in April to put the finishing touches on his “The Rite of Spring” for Ballet West

At the age of 37, political humorist Tom Lehrer remarked, “It is a sobering fact to realize that when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.” I had the same sort of feeling chatting with Glen Tetley, who mentioned that he would be 80 in 18 months. If you do the math, you see that he’s produced roughly one new work for every years he’s been alive. At a little more than half his age, I have yet to accomplish a tithe as much. His career is all the more remarkable for his having entered the dance world at a relatively late age.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, he moved with his mother and grandmother to a small town near Pittsburgh when he was six. “It was a small, very religious town with absolutely no dance to be found anywhere,” he recalls. “We called it humorously `The Holy City:’ it wasn’t dominated by any one religion, but there was a church on every corner. “My first exposure to dance came when I was 16. I had an English teacher who knew dance fairly well tell me that Ballet Theatre was coming and would I like to be a super for them. Naturally, I had no idea what a super was, but the thought of being onstage at all made me say yes.”

He performed with two of the ballet greats of that era: Nora Kaye and Hugh Laing, who danced Romeo and Juliet — and he fell in love. “Because my mother and grandmother did writing and editing,” he goes on, “I think there was some expectation that I’d go into journalism. But they supported this love of dance I’d discovered, and I began studying with a Russian ballet instructor once a week.”

The teacher took him aside one day and told him he really should be taking class every day, that he had that sort of talent that should be cultivated, but money and logistics conspired against her recognition of his talent. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked and the US got sucked into World War II.

“I enlisted at 17,” says Tetley, “and was told my test scores gave me the choice of officer training or pre-med. Becoming a doctor at the navy’s expense sounded pretty good, so I chose pre-med.”

He had just finished his studies (his alma mater, Franklin and Marshall College lists him as class of ‘46 and maintains a well-written bio at its website) when the war ended and faced another choice: he could stay in the military and have them pay for medical school or he could return to civilian life and study medicine on the GI Bill. He chose the latter (and freedom), applying and being accepted at Columbia-Presbyterian in New York City. And this is where the dance world decided he’d done enough non-dance-related things with his life.

“I decided to get up there a few months before school started,” he continues. “I had maybe 25 ¢ in my pocket when I arrived. I had a friend dancing in a show on Broadway and decided to go over to the Martin Beck Theatre, where he was performing, and see if he could loan me a couple of dollars to hold me till I got on my feet.

“When I got to the stage door, a man standing there asked if I was there to audition. I said, `Huh?’ but he said, `You look about right. Get in there.’ To my surprise, I was not only hired but given the job of understudying the male dance lead.”

The show was one you may have heard of: "On the Town". The man at the stage door, who all but shoved him into the audition, was someone you may have heard of as well: Jerome Robbins.
Tetley confirms the rumors that circulate that Robbins was a difficult man to work for, but in the end the two became good friends (although he says he was warned in his callow youth by a female cast member from "On the Town" never to go home with the choreographer). It was Robbins who pulled him aside one day to tell him he had enormous talent, enormous potential, but was in sore need of training to hone his skills.

[This] led to a period of training with some more big names in both modern dance and ballet. He studied modern dance with Hanya Holm and Martha Graham and dance with Anthony Tudor as well as at the newly-formed School of American Ballet. Tetley says he was struck during his studies by the impact Asian movement forms have had on the styles of the men and women we consider pioneers in contemporary dance.

“Of course, in those days,” he mused, “modern dance and ballet were two extremely different worlds with a high wall dividing them: that wall had fierce defenders on either side. This meant I couldn’t tell Tudor I was studying with Hanya Holm and I couldn’t tell Martha Graham I was studying at SAB or any of them that I was learning jazz from dancing on Broadway!

“The one great thing I learned from my father was this: he said, `If you learn nothing else in life, you have to learn to have a poker face.’ And that poker face stood me in great stead in those days!”

Tetley permanently bagged the idea of medical school at that point but did take advantage of his proximity to NYU’s Washington Square campus to finish his degree—in chemistry. “I had had so much science in my pre-med training that that was the easiest subject to finish up in,” he says. “But while I was there, I took advantage of the wealth of offerings the campus had in theatre and literature.”

Those offerings were to come into play later in helping Tetley generate ideas for his ballets and give them the sort of emotional substance and depth for which his work would become known.

He had danced with the companies of most of the choreographers considered founders of American modern dance by the time the ballet world took notice of him: among them Holm, Charles Weidman, Doris Humphrey, Jose Limon, and finally Graham. But it was during yet another turn on Broadway that he was noticed by American Ballet Theatre doyenne Lucia Chase.

“Agnes de Mille had choreographed a solo for me for a show called "Juno" that turned out to be a real show-stopper,” he reminisces. “Based on that, she approached me about joining ABT. Martha and Lucia were not friendly at all, and my choice to leave Martha to take a job with ABT was hard on her.”

But ABT gave him opportunities that would have been inaccessible had he continued in any of the modern dance companies with which he had performed. He danced his first "Miss Julie" opposite Toni Lander (later Toni Lander Marks) and his first "La Sylphide" opposite Kaye. He also passed along a bit of advice he got from Erik Bruhn for dealing with contemporary (read living) choreographers: “Change any piece of the choreography you can get away with!”

Tetley’s transition from dancer to dancer/choreographer came about as the result of his realization that he wanted to do not someone else’s movement but his own. He had been trained by both celebrated modern dancers and celebrated ballet masters (most of whom also choreographed and many of whom disowned even other choreographers on their own side of the wall); he had observed their attitude that modern was modern and ballet was ballet and ne’er the twain shall meet. Observed, yes — but not absorbed. He himself was living proof that the movements of modern dance, ballet, and even jazz could reside harmoniously in the same body.

He set out to demonstrate that his body was not unique in this respect, that dances that incorporated the vocabularies of multiple disciplines could be integrated.

“I gathered a few talented dancers together and formed my own company,” he reminisces. “It was a scary proposition, as I had no stable financial base to work from. Typically, you don’t start a new company without major funding in place.”

His company’s first performance took place at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 1962. For that bill, he choreographed and danced the lead in what has become a classic of contemporary ballet: “Pierrot Lunaire.”

“I know the score doesn’t appeal to everyone,” he chuckles [to me, the soprano sounds like someone being boiled alive, which has detracted from my ability to enjoy what others more savvy regard as a masterpiece — KAW], “but I was very interested in the way Schoenberg found something else to do with Pierrot and Columbine, something that hadn’t been done before.”

Pierrot turned out to be the first as well as the last role he danced for his own company. After ten fairly successful years, he was contacted by Nederlands Dans Theatre, for whom he had choreographed periodically. This call was not a request for a new piece, though: it was a job offer. They were asking him to be their new artistic director.

“I hated to disband my company to take this position, and it was hard for all of us,” he comments, “but after ten years of struggling not only to create but to manage the finances, I was happy to be offered a position where I didn’t have to worry about money!

“I retired from the stage at that point. I think that part was easier for me than it is for a lot of dancers who realize it’s time for them to move on. I had had this urge to create my own works, and at the time I quit dancing, I had already started to expand into something I had a great desire to move on to.”

That something he had a great desire to do was something that changed the face of contemporary ballet.

“I think contemporary ballet would have developed in a completely different direction if Glen hadn’t come along,” asserts Jonas Kåge, who both artistic director of Ballet West and a dancer with a lot of Tetley notches on his belt. “He was really the first to see that the vocabulary and purity of classical ballet could be combined with the explosiveness and grounding of modern dance.

“Graham technique really flows through his style. Someone who’s danced only classical ballet has to first get into his movement scheme. His philosophy is one of looking within oneself rather than looking externally to get the sense of his movement. I felt I became a better classical dancer as a result of doing his works, even though a lot of his steps are into the floor. Really, dancing a Tetley ballet makes you ready for anything else that comes along!”

“I look for meaning in movement,” Tetley explains. “I try to convey this to the dancers. I ask them, `Where does this movement start?’ And, of course, if it’s a port de bras, they all want to say it starts at the shoulder. But I tell them what I learned from Martha: movement really starts with your center, it flows out from the base of your spine.”

Tetley draws from many sources for his ballets: nature, movement forms like tai chi, literature.

“I live in a 16th century tower in northern Italy,” he muses. “It’s surrounded by vinyards and rolling hills. You look out your window and know Bacchus lives.”

But he says he most typically starts with the music before he generates the movement. One of his greatest works, “Voluntaries,” came about as a result of his next move. The Stuttgart Ballet had approached him about joining its artistic staff. Shortly after they extended that invitation, then-artistic director John Cranko died unexpectedly, suffering a heart attack on the plane back to Germany from a company tour to the US.

“They said they really needed me to take over as artistic director at that point,” he recalls. “And when I got there, I was smitten by the deep sense of mourning for John within the company. I was also smitten by the majesty of this set of organ voluntaries by Poulenc. That’s how `Voluntaries’ came about.”

He has also turned to literature and history for inspiration. “Sphinx” is his interpretation of the play by Cocteau in which the sphinx is not beast but young woman; “Alice,” which he created for the National Ballet of Canada includes not only the population of Wonderland but Lewis Carroll and the real Alice as both the child for whom he created the stories and the married woman looking back on that period of her life.

He shares a funny story about “Sphinx,” which he created for dancer’s dancer (and the author’s goddess of dance) Martine van Hamel. “I had approached Paul Chihara with my idea for this ballet and asked him if he would do the score. Later, when he had started work on the composition and was playing for me what he had written, the best I could do when he asked what I thought was to ask him to put it on tape and let me go home and think about it. It just wasn’t right for the ballet I had in mind, and we’d already begun rehearsals, so I found myself flipping madly through my music collection till I hit on a concerto by Martinu that we eventually used. I guess that’s one example of the movement coming before the music!”

Choreologist Bronwen Curry, who travels the world mounting Tetley ballets, says, “There’s a timelessness about Glen’s choreography. Depending on how a contract runs, I may stage a piece for him that’s produced in only one season, then put away for a time. And when it’s brought back out again, it always looks completely fresh. I’ve seen cases of other ballets staged in a trendy way: the English National Ballet, for instance, did a piece based on the songs of the Beatles. And it looked very nice the first few times we did it, but when we tried to revive it some years later, it looked completely dated.”

There’s a lovely, clean simplicity about the sets for Tetley’s ballets as well: the ramp for “Sphinx,” the tree for “Greening,” the peripheral forest for “The Rite of Spring,” for which he credits design wizards like Nadine Baylis and Rouben Ter-Arutunian.

Kåge, for whom the central pas de deux of “Greening” was created (his partner was Birgit Keil), comments, “Glen is extremely well-read so he can draw his ideas from a variety of sources. His approach is very intellectual, but also very physical. When we first met, he demonstrated everything, and I know he still prefers to demonstrate what he can when he choreographs or resets his work.

“He is soft-spoken, but within that soft-spoken quality is a lot of power. He understands that his movement may be difficult for some dancers to master, but he doesn’t just give up on you: he stays with you and helps you get it right.” He laughs. “Of course, as a man, one thing that is extremely hard is that he creates these difficult solos for his male leads. You kill yourself dancing all over the stage, you dance till you’re exhausted, then the girl enters and you think, `Oh, good, now I get to carry the ballerina around.’ I think the reason the Chosen One character in `The Rite of Spring’ dies in the middle of the ballet then comes back in the last ten minutes or so is that the demands of his solo work dictate a rest in the middle of the ballet, or he would simply collapse onstage.”

Kåge’s observation is that Tetley’s works have generally been better received in Europe than in the US. “I think,” he speculates, “that in Europe they’re rebelling against 300 years of tradition in dance so they’re thrilled to find this new style that includes elements of modern dance. It’s a little different over here: it may be that since we’ve had our rebellion over here politically and have no real historical tradition of classical dance, what we want to see more of is the classics.”

As the seminal influence in the movement to blend the vocabularies of ballet and modern dance, Tetley says one big change he has seen in the world dance community is the willingness of younger dancers to embrace the newer styles of movement that blend different techniques. As Kage pointed out, Tetley does feel this movement toward syncretism was embraced first in Europe and only later by the US.

Tetley says that although he can’t demonstrate all the movements he wants as he did once upon a time, he still does prefer to demonstrate what he can. He keeps in shape mainly with aquacise but is conversant with Asian movement forms like tai chi (he even based a piece, “Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain” on this). He told another interviewer that he keeps trying to retire, but people keep asking him to create new works. Today, though, he seems content with the thought that as long as he continue to create (and demonstrate), he’ll keep going.

This interview first appeared in Dance West Magazine.

Edited by Jeff.

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