Home > Uncategorized > James Jordan Learns to Stage Echoing of Trumpets

James Jordan Learns to Stage Echoing of Trumpets

On May 28, Tudor Répétiteur James Jordan,  sat down with Washington University Dance Program faculty member and former ABT Tudor dancer Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal,   to discuss the challenges of learning to stage Tudor’s masterpiece, Echoing of Trumpets.

Q: I understand that you’ve been learning Echoing of Trumpets in order to stage future productions. Tell us about that…..

A: My first exposure to the ballet was with Louisville Ballet in 2004. I’ve been learning several Tudor ballets from Donald Mahler over the past 12 years but this was my first opportunity to work on Echoing of Trumpets in person. Wow, what a powerhouse ballet! Donald had shared with me an amazing television recording of the original cast in Sweden in the early 60s and I just couldn’t wait to get inside of the work. Because of my full time position as ballet master with the KC Ballet, I can’t always get away for an entire staging period. In this case, I could only see a few studio run-throughs before transitioning to the theatre.

Q: Mr. Tudor chose very complex scenery for this ballet. Tell us about those challenges…

A: The ballet takes place in war-time Czechoslovakia amongst the broken stone ruins of a village. In the studio, the ramps and archway openings are marked out but the scale of the set has to be seen to be believed. Before the dancers arrived to their first on-stage rehearsal, I drew maps of its placement on the stage and began to explore the hidden platforms, the ladders upstage and every stepping stone and pathway.

The first rehearsal always takes forever. Dancers must negotiate not only walking on slanted ramps but also executing choreographic phrases and partnering. The hanging of the husband can’t be rehearsed until the set is there. It takes time to work out the use of the leather strap, the grips to get him up and also how to get him down. Then the women must roll him to the edge of the stone bridge and safely onto the floor. Everyone always pitches in and makes it work but its physical action that few have ever done before.

Q: When I saw the recent video of Colorado Ballet dancing Echoing of Trumpets, I was struck once again by Tudor’s ability get inside the score. It seems like Tudor commissioned Martinu to write the score but I know that he didn’t.

A: It’s really incredible….he’s incredible!! The musical and choreographic intensity are so beautifully married but the score is complex, to say the least. It is so very difficult to teach the musicality to the dancers but once it all falls together, it is absolute magic. Mr. Mahler sings the musicality for the dancers in some places and has developed counts for other scenes. But even making those counts line up with the proper beat is difficult to replicate each time because the score is so difficult…. but all eventually falls together with ample rehearsal time. And that is one daunting hurdle for any director agreeing to produce this ballet because it requires more than an average amount of rehearsal time and that can be difficult for some of the larger companies which have so many ballets to learn in a given season.

Q: So there have been other opportunities for you to see Mr. Mahler working in the studio on Echoing of Trumpets?

A: Yes, several years ago I had two opportunities to be with Donald at Ballet West for three week periods of time. He was working on a complete evening of three other Tudor ballets that eventually toured to the Edinburgh Festival. Jonas Kåge was the Artistic Director at that time. That program was a great success and so he then scheduled Echoing of Trumpets which also made a great impression on the audience.

Q: How does the audience react to the extreme violence depicted on stage?

A: They have never seen a ballet like this before and they are absolutely captivated by the work……absolutely silent. But the applause afterwards is always thunderous…..they can’t believe that what they have just seen and what the dancers have endured to tell this story. It raises the audiences’ respect for the company and the art form…..and the dancers always grow in depth and stature from dancing the ballet.

Q: Is it difficult to get the dancers to fully invest in the ballet?

A: Well, there is always a level of respect for any Tudor ballet, even if the dancers haven’t danced one of his ballets before. Most everyone has either read or heard about him and his ballets. With Echoing of Trumpets, the men are always eager to join in as soldiers with challenging music and partnering. But many women haven’t experienced Tudor’s unique pointe-work and that type of rough and tumble partnering but we proceed slowly and carefully to avoid split lips and bloody noses, but sore muscles are a given.

Q: Tell us more about that recent production in Denver…..

Echoing of Trumpets set rendering by Birger Bergling, photo by Louis Milancon

A: Yes, at Colorado Ballet, led by Gil Boggs and Sandra Brown. They’re doing a beautiful job there. Echoing of Trumpets was on their final program of the season which was very strong. I got to be there with Donald for two weeks in November and returned for theatre week in March. My notes and maps are getting better each time I work on it. Sally Bliss flew in for that week in the theatre and worked on details with the dancers and collaborated with the lighting designer to find enough light for the audience to see the dancers while capturing the quality of exterior lighting during war-time.

Q: So you’re notating the ballet?

A: Well not officially as the ballet has already been notated by the Dance Notation Bureau. I just use my own methods of short-hand with several Labanotation principles thrown in such as the use of facing pins and floor diagrams. I think they will be readable by another ballet master eventually…..once I’ve staged the ballet several times and have had time to re-write the notes.

Q: How close is Mr. Mahler’s staging to that original video from Sweden?

A: Because it was done for television, there are extreme close-ups that don’t permit all of the action to be seen. Donald has done extensive research on the ballet, interviewing dancers, working w/ notators, finding other videos, and he and Sally Bliss both danced it at The Metropolitan Opera. So he does follow the Swedish recording and has used other sources to fill in the gaps.

Q: Will there be future opportunities to see Echoing of Trumpets on the stage?

A: The Trust is currently in conversation with a couple of American directors. I can say that Bill Whitener will be bringing it to Kansas City. We have had to wait for the completion of a new performing arts center to have a stage large enough to accommodate the scenery. Stay tuned….

Q: So that’s quite a responsibility to hold the future of any Antony Tudor ballet.

A: No pressure, right!? And I don’t take that responsibility lightly. The search for additional details will never stop. I didn’t know Mr. Tudor personally but I’ll continue to learn from Mr. Mahler and those who did. What an incredible feeling to see a master-work like Echoing of Trumpets come to life….and what a privilege to be a part of the process.

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