Is Tudor Dated?

January 29, 2008

The first time I encountered Antony Tudor, he was sitting in front of the rehearsal studio of the Joffrey Ballet. He was overseeing the reconstruction of his Offenbach in the Underworld, the underbelly of and antithesis to Massine’s frothy Gaîté Parisienne. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and black tie, with a ram-rod back and piercing eagle eyes, he suddenly jumped to his feet to demonstrate a semicircle of flitting, flirtatious piqués in arabesque. For 30 seconds he channeled the essence of the ballet’s Operetta Star. Then he returned to his seat, ram-rod back in place, and stared forward with an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile as if to dare anyone not to take in what he had demonstrated. It became apparent that still waters run deep.

Later in my career, when I danced Tudor’s Continuo, choreographed to Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major (before it became the public domain of funeral parlor television ads), the movement spoke clearly, even without Tudor’s direct coaching. Requiring tough weight changes, subtle musical phrasing, and off-balance turns, the choreography demanded technique secure enough to be concealed for the larger artistic picture. We were, after all, supposed to evoke images of angels gliding through the ether.

This year marks the centennial of Tudor’s birth, and companies around the world are heralding that fact. Seldom has a choreographer been so simultaneously revered, misunderstood, and questioned. Some people—even die-hard ballet aficionados—don’t get him at all. Or they think the ballets look dated. Others (like me) hail his genius. This year, due to plenty of revivals, nearly everyone within distance of a ballet stage will get a chance to make up their own minds.

From London to Miami, from New York to Germany, the Tudor repertoire will demonstrate a diversity of aspects and moods: everything from the childlike innocence of Little Improvisations to the mellifluous memories of The Leaves Are Fading to the greedy hookers of The Judgment of Paris. (See “Tudor Sightings,” p. 46).

Tudor’s impact on 20th-century ballet was vast. “In 1936 Tudor created Lilac Garden with dancers dressed in Edwardian clothes and pointe shoes and moving like human beings,” says Sally Bliss, the head of the Tudor Trust, which has disseminated the choreographer’s work since his death in 1987. “There wasn’t a swan, a wili, or a sylph. Some, like Kurt Jooss, had done it in modern work, but no one had done that in ballet. He depicted life as it was. That changed ballet forever.”

By instilling psychology into the medium of dance, Tudor established a new type of dramatic art. Using ballet vocabulary and specific gestures, he adopted a Chekhovian subtlety that banished overwrought histrionics from the ballet stage and replaced it with something closer to the truth. His choreography, free of frills and shaped by economy of movement, could be called intention in motion. (The fact that Tudor worked in his father’s butcher shop as a youth—see “Attitudes,” page 154)—may have led him to cut quickly to the bone).

Diana Byer, artistic director of the chamber-sized New York Theatre Ballet, trained with Tudor at the Juilliard School. She remembers his rehearsals for Fandango, a study of five competitive Spanish señoritas. “He would sit us in a circle and ask us, ‘What perfume does your character wear? What city does she live in? Who is your dress designer?’ It was like Stanislavsky. You explored from the inside out.”

Because exploration takes time, and today’s dancers tend to want to access information at broadband speed, Tudor’s ballets aren’t easy to embody quickly. Former ABT ballerina Gelsey Kirkland created the lead role in The Leaves Are Fading and was the instrumental muse in bringing Tudor back into the studio to choreograph after a long hiatus. “Dancers immediately tend to imitate or indicate. Mr. Tudor made them accountable,” says Kirkland. “If there was anything extraneous or idiosyncratic, he let you have it.”

Tudor was often referred to as the conscience of ABT (he worked with the company from 1939 until his death) and Kirkland shared a bond with the choreographer in searching for the integrity of movement. “When he choreographed, he contained the essence of the movement in his whole being,” says Kirkland. “It was in his eyes, his back, and his hands. The idea of the essence of the emotional was never exploited, never trivialized. The main pas de deux in Leaves is about trust between two people who know each other like one.”

Because Tudor worked with the pure simplicity of classical movement, people sometimes mistakenly miss the complexity in it. “The form to some people seems very restricted, because you have to find the economy,” says Kirkland. “The anatomy has to work with great intensity, but without false intentions. You have to be able to feel the strength of the torso and the floor. Only when it is necessary do you move your arms and extend your extremities. You have to hold back a lot.” She also points out the need for the back and the scapula to be open, with the arms hanging naturally, the torso always initiating the arms, and the feet never over-rotated. Only by working with a neutral physical instrument can different emotions, like joy, grief, or fear, be encapsulated. “That takes quite a bit of classical understanding,” adds Kirkland.

She also speaks of the musicality of Leaves, whose ephemeral nature is tough to master. “In the silences, there is both continuous movement and a stillness that moves into the next step. You have to learn to rob and steal time.”

When performed correctly, Tudor’s ballets offer just rewards for dancers. The Joffrey Ballet’s Willy Shives, who now sets ballets for the Tudor Trust, says, “Tudor ballets taught me that it’s not about facial expressions, but about how the choreography speaks through your body. There is a spiritual calmness about his choreography that tells you where he wants you to go.”

As an example, Maia Wilkins, who has danced the second song of Dark Elegies with Shives, cites one particular passage. “My partner keeps turning me around and trying not to let me go away from him,” says Wilkins. With jarring directness, his support won’t allow her to spiral from guilt into despair.

“There is an intimacy about these pieces,” says Elena Zahlmann, who dances with New York Theatre Ballet. “It’s as if the audience is listening in on a conversation.”

As a craftsman and an observer of the human condition, Tudor’s voice can teach today’s choreographers plenty. “He didn’t create hundreds of ballets, but he never did a movement that didn’t depict what he wanted. So many choreographers today produce a jumble of steps,” says Bliss. “Often for Tudor the most important things were the transitions.” For instance, the phrasing of a glissade or step up onto pointe with outreached hands could offer a wealth of expression.

“Tudor used a broad range of the classical ballet canon,” says Terence Duncan, also with New York Theatre Ballet. “A lot of contemporary choreographers say less with far more steps.” If you look at Tudor’s skill in working with ensembles—the exquisitely timed exits and entrances of Lilac Garden, the group formations melting into monologues in Dark Elegies, the asymmetrical patterns of The Leaves Are Fading—you witness superb craftsmanship.

Regarding the notion that Tudor’s ballets look dated—yes, they can, if done without proper coaching. But there is timely relevance to the themes of his ballets: the slide into criminality of Undertow, the sadistic brutality of Echoing of Trumpets, or the convoluted search for love in Lilac Garden. Wilkins says that Joffrey performances of Dark Elegies took on a special meaning after the tsunami catastrophe of 2004 (as did ABT’s production after 9/11).

Despite the broad centennial retrospective, some notable Tudor works are missing. No one as yet has announced productions of Pillar of Fire, Shadowplay, Undertow, Echoing of Trumpets, Dim Lustre, Gala Performance, or Romeo and Juliet.

And Byer has a good question: “Are companies really rediscovering Tudor’s ballets or is it just because this is the year of his centennial?”

Time will deliver the final verdict on the survival of Tudor’s legacy in this century. For those of us who are moved by his works of art, we look forward to having his name honored and his ballets danced. For 2008, at least, his vision will be visible.

Joseph Carman is a Contributing Editor to Dance Magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet (Limelight Editions, 2004).