An Interview with Sally Brayley Bliss
by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin
In anticipation of Ballet West's tour of Antony Tudor ballets to the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland, we met over the phone with the Executive Director of the Tudor Trust, Sally Brayley Bliss, while she was on vacation in Canada, visiting the famous “Anne of Green Gables” setting - Prince Edward Island. What follows is an edited transcription of our delightful conversation about Mr. Tudor and the extant ballets the Tudor Trust superintends.
How did you get involved with Mr. Tudor's ballets? What was your relationship with him?
I was born in London but grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I started taking dancing lessons when I was five years old. My mother was a balletomane and would often talk to me about Tudor. I remember being so excited when we got to see the National Ballet of Canada in "Lilac Garden" - and being so disappointed as I didn't like it! I recall they also did "Dark Elegies." I later became his biggest fan and thought he was way ahead of his time. For example, he was one of the first, if not the first, ballet choreographer to take dancers out of tutus and chiffon and make them “real” people.
After six years of dancing with the National Ballet of Canada, I went to New York where I joined the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Mr. Tudor was teaching at the Met at the time and I took his classes for many years. His classes were most challenging (hard!) and sometimes I didn't feel like a very good dancer at the end of some of his classes, but I loved them and went back for more! Alicia Markova had become director and she introduced ballet nights. She brought in Tudor to do "Echoing of Trumpets" [Martinu], a ballet created first for the Royal Swedish Ballet about the Czech town of Lidice being taken over by Nazis. A strong ballet that I think is relevant today. He also created a new pas de deux for myself and Lance Westergard, "Creating Oracles" to the French composer, Ibert. We worked on this for six months, often until midnight. The results were certainly worth it!
We are very fortunate that Muriel Topaz (Dance Notation Bureau) went to Mr. Tudor to suggest he take steps to preserve his ballets. He took her advice and went to my husband, Tony Bliss (Anthony Bliss, who was the General Manager of the Met at that time), who was an attorne,y and he took his request to his firm (Millbank, Tuced, Hadley, & McCoy) and worked up an entire will. Tudor was first going to make my son the trustee but thought better of it as he realized he was not a dancer and thought it too much of a burden, so he made me the trustee instead! So, not only am I a trustee of the Tudor Trust for his ballets, I was also executor of his will.
What are some of the ballets of Tudor that are currently being done? Which ones are extant today?
[Interestingly, Ms. Bliss just happened to have Muriel Topaz's biography of Tudor, "Undimmed Lustre," with her on PEI. She was able to refer to it for the complete Tudor canon.]
People don't realize that there are many of his ballets that are being done, or reconstructed, today beside the typical ones that tend to first come to mind such as "Lilac Garden" or "Pillar of Fire." One of his best, early ballets - "Cross-Garter'd" (1931) unfortunately is lost. His earliest works were done for Ballet Rambert at the Mercury Theatre in London, and that [ballet] was one of them. It's amazing the level of ballet and numbers of works that came from that tiny (16' x 30') foot stage. But still around are: "The Planets" (1931, Holst) which I'm working on putting back together; "Jardin aux Lilas" (1936, Chausson) which caused quite a sensation at the time; "Dark Elegies" (1937, Mahler); "Judgment of Paris" (1938, Weill); and "Gala Performance" (1938, Prokofiev) which was just done by the Tulsa Ballet.
In the United States, he made the ballet, "Timetable" (1940) for the precursor of NYCB, Ballet Caravan, which premiered at Hunter College. As you probably know, he was one of the original choreographers to invited to be part of the first artistic team of Ballet Theatre (now ABT). For ABT, he did his famous "Pillar of Fire" (April 1942) which “made” Nora Kaye and Hugh Laing major ballet stars.
I have to say that when I hear people say that nobody can do "Pillar" like Nora Kaye, I think that they don't realize Nora did it about 500 times!
He did a "Romeo and Juliet" in 1943 to a score by Frederick Delius, although it wasn't completed by the time of its announced premiere. The legendary impresario, Sol Hurok made Tudor go out and tell the audience that it wasn't quite done and they could come back and see it when it was complete, which they did! Markova and Lang were the original cast. It has not been done since 1971, and we're working now are getting it done.
Other ballets are "Dim Lustre" (1943); "Undertow" (1945) with Lang, Diana Adams, John Kriza, and Alicia Alonso. Remarkable cast; what can I say!? "Little Improvisations" (1953 to the Schumann Kinderzenen), "Offenbach in the Underworld" (1954, Philadelphia, later National Ballet of Canada) which is the closer on the Ballet West program. "Fandango" (1963, Soler) at the Met Ballet, which was five women competing with each other. Also done for the Met was "Concerning Oracles" (1966).
He received one of the first NEA grants in 1971 for three works for Julliard - "Continuo" (Pachelbel), "Sunflowers" (Janacek), and "Sirius" (Jeffrey Gray; percussion)
It was while he was directing the Royal Swedish Ballet he did the work to Martinu, "Echoing of Trumpets" (1963), that I mentioned earlier.
Ashton asked him back to England to create a new work for the Royal Ballet. This was "Shadowplay" (1967, Koechlin) which I think helped make stars of Anthony Dowell and Merle Park. Ken Archer and his wife, Millicent Hodson, are trying to reconstruct "Knight Errant" (1968, Richard Strauss) made for the Royal Ballet's second company in Manchester and which starred David Wall.
For the Australian Ballet he made "Divine Horseman" (1969) which I have to admit was not a success. However, Maina Gielgud brought in "Leaves are Fading" and "Gala Performance" while she was director. "Leaves" was first done in 1975 for ABT and the first cast included Gelsey Kirkland and Jonas Kage. It's to several Dvorak works including his Opus 77.
Donald Mahler did the staging for the Ballet West works. He is currently in Salt Lake putting the finishing touches on "Offenbach" and "Lilac Garden." Amanda McKerrow and her husband are there doing "Leaves are Fading." I think that was Jane Herman's idea, and a wonderful one too - that we have a “third-generation” ABT dancer staging this work.
You should also know that Ballet Rambert will be doing "Dark Elegies" for the upcoming Mahler Festival.
How long do you allow to stage a work and what's the process?
Three weeks. We find this is typically about the right amount of time and then of course, there's about one week in the theatre prior to opening. Casting is done by the stager in partnership with a company's director.
If I feel that a company has the technical ability to do a Tudor work, then I give it to them. I try to be generous.
How do you find today's dancers feel about or approach his work? Many of whom were probably born after his passing...
Yes! Tudor moved in a different way than dancer typically do. The Ballet West dancers love the "Offenbach." As I mentioned earlier, Nora Kaye did many, many performances of "Pillar." I think you have to do a lot in order to really “get” the roles. The technical things are not a problem for contemporary dancers. Dancers seem to be excited to get to do his works. I find (like with Balanchine), these ballets make them better dancers and greater artists.
On a personal note, he was the godfather of my first child.
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