On Saturday, March 29th, 2008, alumni of Julliard, the ABT, the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, and others gathered in the studios and a theater of the Julliard School to remember and honor the life and work of Antony Tudor.
As if summoning (the deity or demon) Tudor to attend this his celebration, Sally Barley Bliss, Trustee of the Tudor Ballet Trust as well as the impetus behind this event, bid him to cast his favor upon it. Lance Westergard felt his penetrating stare, Judith Charzin-Bennahum heard his insinuating and personal questions, Kirk Peterson caught his caustic quips, Bonny Mathis filled with his friendship, and Donald Mahler sensed it all. Tudor had indeed descended.
The President of the Julliard School, Dr. Joseph W. Polisi, opened the Celebration with a discussion on the Tudor/William Schuman collaboration for “Undertow.” (Schuman was President of Julliard from 1945-1961 and President of Lincoln Center 1962-1969. Additionally, he was instrumental in making Julliard a component of Lincoln Center.) Given the evidence of the correspondence between Tudor and Schuman, it is clear that Tudor spared no one from his legendary mind-games. Nevertheless, Schuman found satisfaction in the specificity of the instructions given him by Tudor for “Undertow.” And gratefully, Dr. Polisi illustrated the result of those instructions with recorded musical examples. (This fall, Amadeus Press will publish a book on the life and works of William Schuman written by Dr. Polisi.)
It took two studios connected by video link to accommodate the crowd of Tudor celebrants wanting to recover their past or witness the moments of creation. The program of planned and rehearsed demonstrations of what might be called the Tudor Pedagogical Method as well as the many spontaneous examples solicited from the audience was MC’ed by the Boston Conservatory’s Yosuko Tokunga and performed by exquisite Julliard students. In a sense, however, the Tudor Celebration was a senior’s moment for remembrance, care, and testimony. Although often directly stated by participating volunteers, the vividness of the memories, that is the material laid before the audience clearly showed the life transforming effect Tudor had upon those that “studied” with him. Whether, for example, it was the life long study of something as routine as walking, the description of the surfing-like thrill of doing multiple pirouettes when uncalled for, the mastery of the use of rubato, the futility of conveying the subtly of character without the support of the music, or the “diabolical” challenge of using only one combination of steps (played on each repetition to different music) to convey very different sensibilities. And because the pianist was the same Elizabeth Sawyer that played for Tudor’s classes, we heard what Tudor and his Julliard students heard and that sharpened the keenness of these recollected moments. Moreover, Sawyer succinctly, even if extremely, stated the opinion held by many that Tudor was, “The only thing completely positive that happened in my life.” Then in Amen, past and present student bodies joined in the Tudor reverence.
Saturday afternoon brought the Celebration to the Peter Jay Sharp Theater where Clive Barnes moderated two panel discussions. The first panel, titled Tudor Dancers, featured dancers: Eliot Feld, Jonas Kage, Bonnie Mathis, Kevin Mckenzie, Amanda McKerrow, Kathleen Moore, Kirk Peterson, and Lance Westergard. And what flowed from their accounts of their relationships to Tudor and Tudor’s work was the “life-change” theme. In fact, so steady did this theme ring that like a pedal point it glued the busy and oft times contrapuntal parts of the Celebration together. In fact, the contrapuntal lines emerged from a single theme (theme because the issue links the two panel’s discussions): why aren’t the works of Tudor performed more often? By default, this put the AD of the ABT, Kevin Mckenzie, in the hot seat. This became so following the public acknowledgement of certain givens. First, that Tudor is a Master of Choreography; second, that many of his works are brilliant examples of twentieth century art and are already held within the repertories of many ballet companies, particularly that of the ABT; third, that his works have a positive effect on a dancer’s understanding of the point of dancing (or following Sawyer’s example, the point of being); and, fourth, that if this sort of knowledge is to continue, then his work must be performed. Seated next to Donald Mahler, one could feel his blood pressure nearing “red line.” Given the ‘givens’ for him the non-solution to the non-problem of the appeal of Tudor’s works is simple- more performances. Yet an infuriating distraction into side bar issues such as the ‘datedness’ of movement, the downer subject matter, and of what Wittgenstein called the “abominable mess” of Freudian psychology that informs some of Tudor’s works lead the discussion in circles. That centrifugal force, however, hinted at a fifth given: that the fading of Tudor’s legacy will result from an active decision rather than a passive response or reading of public interest. Tudor’s fate may finally echo that of Doris Humphrey: an honored educator and pillar of Modern American Dance, but where have her dances gone?
The second panel, titled Writers and Musicians, featured Judith Chazin-Bannahum, Alexander Ewing, Anna Kisselgoff, Donald Mahler, Jane Pitchard, Gerd Anderson, and Elizabeth Sawyer. (Former dancer with the Royal Swedish Ballet and maker of a documentary film on Tudor, Gerd Anderson took the place of the missing Donna Perlmutter. One audience wag suggested that Perlmutter went missing because she was in a witness protection program.) Although populated with scholarly luminaries and critical demigods such as Chazin-Bannahum, Pichard, and Kisselgoff, it was repetiteur Donald Mahler that easily parried and countered the thrusts of dubious observation and specious reasoning some of which carried over from the previous panel. In fact, his declaration at the beginning of the discussion that the works of Tudor are transcendent, moving, meaningful et al prompted vigorous audience approval. Without equivocation, this response established the gold standard of consenting adult attitudes about the significance of Tudor’s work. In fact, every time Mahler spoke after that the audience cheered. While always civil, the discussions covered sensitive issues such as whether or not Huge Laing was Tudor’s muse, the Ashton – Tudor rivalry, and the continued rejection, in spite of counter claims, of Tudor by his homeland. In spite of these distractions, Mahler nevertheless made the point that if Tudor’s work is to continue to transform the lives of dancers and others then it must be seen. The panel ended, as most of them do, without resolution.
Anecdotally, however, during dinner Saturday evening Mahler received an email from a dancer at the Joffery. That message repeated the life-transforming theme described and lived by many of the attendees at the Tudor Celebration. What more need be said?
On Saturday evening in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, the dance, drama, and music students of Julliard gave sparkling, thoughtful, and powerful performances of Graham’s “Appalachian Spring,” Tudor’s “Dark Elegies,” and Limon’s “There is a Time.”