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Restaging Trio Con Brio by Diana Byer

February 16, 2010 1 comment

I got an exciting phone call from Norton Owen, Director of Preservation at Jacob’s Pillow, about a year and half ago. He found an old, very fuzzy, silent 16-millimeter film of Antony Tudor’s Trio Con Brio. Tudor choreographed the pas de trios at Jacob’s Pillow and the first performance was on June 27, 1952 to Russlan and Ludmilla by Mikhail Glinka. The name of the choreographer, Vispitin, was Tudor’s invention; he felt that the work was not in the Tudor style and should not bear his name. The ballet was thought to be long lost.

Norton thought New York Theatre Ballet might be interested in trying to mount the work. I was honored, and absolutely delighted that Norton thought of NYTB. I thought the pas de trios were beautiful, and after discussing the project and its problems with our then music director, Ferdy Tumakaka, I decided to give it a try. Ferdy did the music research and found the score. We went into the studio with three dancers and the “nightmare” began.

Sallie Wilson had done a similar restaging about 6 years before. The ballet was Les Mains Gauches choreographed to music by Jacques Ibert. So, because I was part of that exercise, I thought this wouldn’t be so hard.

Mains Gauches, a ballet Tudor also did at Jacob’s Pillow, premiered on July 20, 1951. Sallie was in the original cast, had a blurry, silent film, and a fabulous memory. I was stunned as I watched her recall not only the choreography but also how it fit with the extremely difficult music. She remembered not just her part but the other dancers’ as well. A miracle to behold. It was difficult to see the costumes because the film was so unclear, but Sallie was able to do costume sketches for our costume designer, Sylvia Nolan. NYTB mounted Les Mains Gauches in 2003 at Florence Gould Hall, NYC. Like many of Tudor’s works, it’s a difficult ballet and takes repeated viewing to truly understand its full meaning and to discover the wonderful detail in each gesture. But even knowing all of this, I thought that mounting Trio Con Brio might not be too difficult. How wrong I was.

Trio Con Brio was a different exercise right from the start. I had never seen the ballet and only learned of it from mention in a 1963 Dance Perspectives Magazine edited by A.J. Pischl and Selma Jean Cohen. So how were we going to put it together from this jumpy, unclear film, that had a burn in it with a full half minute missing from one of the men’s variations? We started, painstakingly, learning the steps, one phrase at a time, then trying to make it fit the music. Ferdy, happily, has a great understanding of dance and had worked with Sallie for several years while she staged Judgment of Paris, Jardin aux Lilas, and Little Improvisations, and while she coached Fandango. The dancers had worked with Sallie for several years on all of these ballets and with her coaching they understood how to approach the choreography and the style.

We worked and worked, hours every day for several months. We argued constantly, and tempers flared. But each time we figured out a phrase, the next phrase became easier. We only had to learn to trust Tudor’s musicality, his honesty in style, and we had to avoid adding theatricality to the movement or how it fit musically. We finally finished everything except the variation that has the 30 seconds missing. I decided to speak about it with Lance Westergard, our new ballet master. He has the understanding of Tudor’s work to make a good decision about how to solve the problem.

In the meantime, we presented the unfinished work several times in our Dance On Shoestring program. It’s a wonderful ballet. It may not rank with Tudor’s very best, but it’s an important part of his choreographic history. Elizabeth Sawyer and Hugh Laing made wonderful comments about Tudor’s use of music in the 1963 issue of Dance Perspectives. Elizabeth was his accompanist. She said “Tudor doesn’t count for his dancers because he wants them to feel the music. It’s not the specific notes that matter. It’s his intuitive awareness, his grasp of inner structure, and his insight into the essence of the music that he communicates.”

Trio Con Brio at Jacob's Pillow. Photo by John Lindquist. Courtesy of Jacob's Pillow.

Not just the notes. Hugh Laing put it this way: “We danced between the notes. This sometimes bothered conductors, who waited for the dancers to step on the beat and had to be told to just go ahead and play; they would all come out even in the end.” These statements so clearly apply to the musicality of Trio Con Brio.

There is always debate on whether it’s appropriate to mount a work from film without the original cast present. But with NYTB’s vast Tudor repertory, the dancers who worked closely with Sallie Wilson, and now with Lance Westergard and our legacy of the training syllabus of Enrico Cecchetti through the teaching of Margaret Craske I think we can give Trio Con Brio the respect it deserves.

NYTB plans to mount Tudor’s Soiree Musical, Trio Con Brio and Jardin aux Lilas in its 2010/11 season