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A Tudor Portrait

- Preview: Ballet West in Edinburgh

by Karen Anne Webb

July, 2004


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.

"Dancing 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 it.”

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 trusting.”

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 West Magazine.

Edited by Stuart

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