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A Tudor Portrait
Ballet West in Edinburgh
by Karen Anne Webb
Can anything good come out of Utah?
Well, yes, if your perspective is that of dance-o-phile.
On the bill at this year’s Festival are programs by Anthony Tudor and
Alwin Nikolais, two of the most influential choreographers of the twentieth
century; both are being represented by companies from Salt Lake City.
In the case of Tudor,
that means Ballet West, whose current artistic director Jonas Kåge had
a long-standing relationship with the choreographer. “The Festival wanted
Tudor’s work represented in one program,” Kåge explained in an interview
from the Ballet West offices just as the company entered its intensive
rehearsal period for the program. “Sally Bliss, who manages the Tudor
Ballet Trust, had seen the company perform several years before—nothing
by Tudor, I think it was Ronald Hynd’s ‘Rosalinda!’ But she had heard
reports that our productions of Tudor’s ‘The Leaves are Fading’ and ‘Lilac
Garden’ went well. These considerations plus the fact that Tudor has really
always been a part of my dancing life gave her some sense of security
that this would work, and we received the commission.”
The three pieces that were eventually selected represent a cross-section
of Tudor’s life and work: his early, angst-ridden ‘Jardin aux Lilas;’
his later ‘Offenbach in the Underworld,’ which is campy and far brighter;
and his mellow-yet-introspective ‘The Leaves are Fading.’
“Tudor’s work can be difficult to represent in an evening of only three
ballets,” Kåge continued. “He generated a great volume of work early on;
‘Leaves are Fading,’ one of his final works, came as he arose from a period
of choreographic dormancy. His later works were very different from those
he created earlier in his life.”
Last spring, Ballet West presented Glen Tetley’s ‘The Rite of Spring’;
Kåge points out that Tetley and Tudor are, from one perspective, opposite
sides of the same coin. Tetley was an American whose works were more appreciated
in Europe; Tudor was a European whose works achieved greater acclaim on
the other side of the Pond. “But the thought of Tudor’s being English
and our producing these works for such an important festival within Great
Britain is a little scary,” he comments, then adds with an ironic laugh,
“There’s no pressure at all here, is there?”
Although Tudor created the central pas de deux for ‘Leaves’ for Kåge and
Gelsey Kirkland when they danced for American Ballet Theatre, Kåge is
not setting the ballet himself. ABT principal Amanda McKerrow and alum
John Gardner are setting ‘Leaves;’ Donald Mahler has returned to the company
to re-stage ‘Jardin’ and to set ‘Offenbach’ from scratch.
a Tudor ballet is a very intense experience,” says newly promoted principal
Kristin Hakala, who has featured roles in all three ballets. “Of course,
the emotion of the abstract ‘Leaves are Fading’ is much different from
the emotion of the dramatic story of ‘Lilac Garden,’ but it’s still there
and it still plays a role. I was anxious to recreate the role of Caroline
in ‘Lilac Garden’ in part because of the intensity of the experience.
Once the ballet starts, I just get lost in the role. I’m not Kristin playing
the part of Caroline; I become Caroline.”
Hakala says Tudor’s choreography lends itself to this sort of total immersion.
“It’s not about how many pirouettes you can do,” she explains. “Every
little movement he put in means something. For instance, there’s great
tension in the opening pose; the very first movement in the ballet is
Caroline’s breath. Her back is to the audience, and you see her turmoil
reflected in the way one hand clutches the opposite arm, then runs down
For those unclear on the plot, ‘Lilac Garden’/’Jardin aux Lilas’ takes
place at a garden party. Attending are the protagonist Caroline, The Man
She Loves, The Man She Must Marry, and his ex-mistress (“An Episode in
his Past”), who harbors feelings for him. Tudor intentionally set the
ballet a generation earlier than his own, in that period when it was customary
for young people of position to have their marriages arranged: they married
not the people they loved but those their parents deemed “suitable.” The
ballet has the lovers meeting and communicating surreptitiously while
the party goes on around them and ends on a somewhat less than happy note.
The ballet is a special one for Hakala: her “Man She Loves” is her real-life
husband, fellow principal Tong Wang. While Tudor’s death preceded Hakala’s
entry into the ballet world—she praises Mahler’s ability to communicate
what Tudor wanted—McKerrow and Gardner learned their Tudor roles directly
from Tudor himself.
“Dancers of a generation before ours,” says the 40-year-old McKerrow,
“said he was very scary to work with.”
“You paid attention and tried to do what he was telling you,” adds Gardner,
“because you knew if you didn’t, he could slay you with a word.”
“John and I were lucky that way,” McKerrow goes on, “because by the time
he got to us, he had converted to Buddhism.”
“He would use his wit still,” Gardner clarifies, “but it would be to be
clever, and not to tear someone down by humiliating him.”
As the above exchange indicates, off-stage partners McKerrow and Gardner
work beautifully as a team. For them, the glass is always at least half
full. The dancers adore them for their unrelentingly positive outlook
and way of kindly encouraging them while coaching them through Tudor’s
sometimes tortuous choreography. “You made great progress today!” they
enthuse as dancers make faces about how far they haven’t come in getting
the steps down. And having danced Tudor extensively, they get up and demonstrate!
McKerrow calls ‘Leaves’ a “gentler” Tudor ballet than much of his earlier
work. “It begins and ends with a woman walking across the front of the
stage. The pas de deux might be seen to represent young love followed
by love that has become serious, then passionate, and finally secure and
So does it all represent the woman reflecting on her own life? “Tudor,”
she says, “had a way of explaining things to us but still wanting the
audience to come to its own conclusions.”
”With a lot of his work, technically people will see the dramatic content
and not realize how classically grounded his work was,” she continues.
“His work is highly based on Cecchetti technique; Cecchetti is what we
got when he taught class. But he went a little beyond that with his choreography.
He would create movements that weren’t necessarily comfortable for a dancer
to do no matter how much classical training he or she had: in fact, you
often struggled to get your body into the position he wanted!
“When I learned the role of Hegar for ‘Pillar of Fire,’ I remember him
saying specifically, ‘Is that uncomfortable for you?’ And when I said
I was, he said, ‘Then you’re doing it right.’ But if you did the movement
right, you would begin to feel the emotion as he intended your character
to feel it. You wouldn’t even have to try. With Tudor’s choreography,
you come to understand the emotion through the movement, and that helps
you to get deeper into the character.”
“I remember one of the first times I worked with him,” recalls Gardner,
“he hit me with, ‘Where are you coming from?’ as I walked into the studio.
He wanted to hear about my character, and I was like ‘-er. . .’ So that
was the last time I didn’t dig into myself to learn about my character
before I rehearsed with him.”
McKerrow says that ‘Leaves’ was an outgrowth of work Tudor did with students
at Julliard late in his life. The ballet was the first Tudor work she
and Gardner staged together—on Washington Ballet, of which she is an alum.
The quality of their work attracted the notice of Bliss, who then invited
them to stage more of Tudor’s work. “I love passing his work on to a new
generation of dancers,” says McKerrow. “I love his choreography so much,
that, when I teach, I feel like I’m feeding them this luscious dessert!”
The third work on the bill, ‘Offenbach,’ Kåge describes as very camp.
It takes place in a French nightclub and features three couples; each
of the six people involved is at some point attracted to a man or woman
other than the one he or she came with.”
“The style reminds me a bit of Hynd’s 'Rosalinda',” says Hakala, who was
cast in the role of the operetta star, “but it has its dramatic moments.
It almost looks like it will have a sad ending when everyone leaves with
the person he or she came with. But then my character runs back in and
hands what today would be her phone number to the man she was attracted
to. It’s a sly and funny moment.”
Kåge is, of course, excited about what this opportunity means for Ballet
West. It means the company will be receiving international notice and
that interest in the company will be growing. Although a number of dancers
departed this season to pursue other goals and two principal women remain
on maternity leave, Kåge feels confident the younger members of the company
are up to the Tudor challenge. “His choreography is bringing things out
in them that even they didn’t realize they had, and that, too, is exciting.”
Karen Anne Webb is the editor and publisher of Dance
Edited by Stuart
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