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Transitioning Tudor - Staging the Works of Antony Tudor for Ballet West

An Interview with Donald Mahler

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

July 2004

On a sunny Summer afternoon in Seattle, we spoke by telephone with Donald Mahler, who was at the Ballet West studio in Salt Lake about his staging of two well-known Tudor works for Ballet West and Ballet West's upcoming tour to the Edinburgh International Festival in Scotland. Enthusiastic about Mr. Tudor's artistic oeuvre, Mr. Mahler explained his current projects and what it was like to set these works on today's dancers. What follows is an edited transcription of that lively conversation.

What is your connection to Mr. Tudor?

I first fell in love with one of Tudor's ballets when I was young and didn't know anything about ballet. I went to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, which was run by Margaret Craske and Mr. Tudor. I didn't study with Mr. Tudor until I was advanced enough for his classes. Yet after only a couple of weeks of lessons at the school, I was approached about being in a film ("The Very Eye of Night") with choreography by Tudor, directed by Maya Deren. In 1956, I saw the two pieces that I am actually staging now - "Lilac Garden" and "Offenbach in the Underworld" - with the National Ballet of Canada. I asked Mr. Tudor to arrange an audition with the Company. I got into the Company and eventually performed in both of these ballets.

Five years later, I joined the Metropolitan Opera Ballet that was directed at the time by Dame Alicia Markova, and, while there, performed his ballets "Echoing of Trumpets" and "Concerning Oracles," both under Mr. Tudor's supervision.

Please tell us what it was like to work with him. Any anecdotes or small stories?

I think you'll find most people will say the same things about him. He was very brilliant and had an insight into individuals, and could see your strong and weak points. He often dug into people's weaknesses because he thought it made them better performers. His sardonic humor was very British, and he could be painful and difficult, but he could also be very inspiring. It was important - and still is - to get rid of mannerisms and phoniness and to dig deep inside ourselves.

Which Tudor ballets do you stage?

"Dark Elegies," "Lilac Garden," "Echoing of Trumpets," "Pillar of Fire," "Offenbach." We did new sets and costumes for "Pillar," that I just recently staged for ABT. Mrs. Bliss, Kevin [McKenzie] and I feel it is important to keep up with today's production values. I have to admit that I think the new designs are very successful.

What is it like working with Ballet West?

Oh, they're terrific! They are very patient with me and are very good, very fast. I've only been working here a little over 6 days, and I've been able to set all but a small part of the "Offenbach" (which is a 40-minute ballet), plus some of "Lilac Garden." They are easy to work with - very quick.

How long do you normally take to stage a ballet?

Usually about three weeks, plus one week of tech rehearsal and dress rehearsal in the theatre. Dancers have stronger technique now (at least stronger than I had!) but don't often have an opportunity to do this kind of dramatic ballet, which used to be more common when I was dancing. They do have to learn how to perform Tudor ballets and to “forget” about being ballet dancers. It takes time and hopefully by doing the steps and choreography, they will increasingly understand the heart of each piece.

I work with the artistic director and ballet masters to determine casting. Jonas [Kåge] is great, as he really knows the dancers and understands the importance of the Tudor work.

There is an upswing in requests for Tudor's works?

Yes! I have a very full calendar. I'm here [Salt Lake City] through the end of August and I've staged pieces for ABT, and several other places. I'm going to the Joffrey Ballet in a few months to stage "Dark Elegies." I saw them, by the way, at the recent Ashton Festival in New York and they looked fabulous. The audience gave them a well-deserved standing ovation. There used to be all-Tudor programs at ABT when he was still alive, and it's rare now. It's great that Ballet West is repeating its tour program this Fall here in Salt Lake. There have been a couple of other all-Tudor bills: in Louisville and Milwaukee.

Not to take the thunder and lightning away from ABT's publicity department, but I am curious who you cast as Hagar in "Pillar of Fire"?

It had been thought for a long time that no one could do this part, and I think my casting surprised even Kevin. I was quite familiar with the dancers, having just staged "Offenbach." Although Julie Kent had danced very successfully in dramatic ballets and had performed in a number of Mr. Tudor's ballets, both Gillian Murphy and Michele Wiles have been known for their very strong technique in classical and abstract roles. Their work on "Pillar" was not only a great success but their performances in the rest of the repertoire were greatly enhanced with a new depth of feeling and artistic growth.

Edited by Jeff.

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