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Kirk Peterson on The Royal Ballet School’s Performance of Lilac Garden

August 16, 2010 Leave a comment

During one of my residences at The Royal Ballet School in London, Gailene Stock, Director of The Royal Ballet School, asked me if I thought that the senior students in the Upper School of The Royal Ballet could tackle Antony Tudor’s “Lilac Garden.  As a professional dancer, Gailene had had a rather extraordinary experience with Mr.Tudor when he cast her as Hagar in his masterpiece “Pillar of Fire” and (Gailene) was in his “The Divine Horsemen” with the Australian Ballet.

Kirk Peterson

Working with Mr. Tudor was a career altering experience for Gailene and an event that affected her extraordinarily and remained with her for her entire career.  Having developed an enormous respect for Mr. Tudor and a deeply felt love for his work, she wanted her charges at The Royal Ballet School to experience the work of this great 20th century master.

“Lilac Garden”, although only 15 to 17 minutes long, depending on the conductor and violinist, is not a ballet Mr. Tudor gave his permission for anyone to perform lightly.  Having worked with The Royal Ballet senior students for a number of years now, I was familiar with each year’s student’s capabilities and I felt that, although perhaps a bit of a stretch for them emotionally, they were capable of essaying this unique challenge and felt that it could be an incredible learning experience for them.  After further conversations with Sally Bliss, she agreed to my being able to set “Lilac Garden” for Gailene Stock and the senior students of The Royal Ballet School and she agreed with me that this could be an amazing learning experience for them.

Royal Ballet School, 2010 End of Year Performance of Lilac Garden. Photo by Johan Persson

Indeed in rehearsals this turned out to be the case and it is a testament to Gailene’s leadership that the students were incredibly focused and approached the challenge like seasoned professionals.   Introducing new dancers to Mr. Tudor’s work is always a great responsibility and they accepted this challenge with open minds.

Just before my trip to London, an Icelandic volcano decided to erupt and created a vast Northern European ash cloud that wreaked havoc with all air travel to that area and I ended up having to wait a full week before I could get to London, consequently compressing my rehearsal period to two rather than three weeks.

If the students had not been so focused and prepared for an intensely compressed learning experience, I doubt that it could have actually been accomplished with the kind of detail required of Mr. Tudor’s works.  And I was also given extra rehearsal time as a result of this unexpected volcanic interruption. Yet, focused they were and they did a remarkable job of honing in on my insistent and perpetual fine-tuning.

Luckily for me I had worked intimately with Sallie Wilson and Donald Mahler on “Lilac Garden” and of course for seven years on and off with Mr. Tudor himself and was able to rapidly impart much of that accumulated knowledge in a concentrated manner.  I left London feeling a bit anxious about my not having more time with the dancers, but felt confident leaving it in the hands of Gary Norman and Petal Miller- Ashmole who were my assistants during this intense rehearsal period.

Although the dancers were scheduled to perform “Lilac Garden” in the smaller Linbury Theatre at Covent Garden on June 30th, July 1st and July 3rd, they were not going to perform it with full sets and music until their Annual Matinee performance at the Royal Opera House on July 11th, 2010.  I must thank Brian Sciarra for his invaluable help in offering his lighting plot for these performances as he so masterfully created them for us when Donald Mahler staged “Lilac Garden” for the ABT Studio Company when I was Artistic Director there.

I was brought back to London for an extra week of rehearsals leading up to the end of year performances because of the generous sponsorship of Ricki Gail Conway and was able to complete most of the coaching required of so subtle and demanding a work.

“Lilac Garden” is a ballet who’s integrity as a ballet can disappear as rapidly as alight mist in the sun without attention to its subtle musicality and to period awareness of its specific motivations and in my return, I was able to point them

Royal Ballet School, 2010 End of Year Performance of Lilac Garden. Photo by Johan Persson

more thoroughly in that direction.

I find that many dancers today rarely focus on choreographic details necessary for the execution of heritage works, but this was not the case with these dancers.

At the end of my first visit, the dancers performed an in-house dress rehearsal at the newly refurbished White Lodge Lower School before an invited audience which included many of their teachers and young colleagues and supported by Sarasin and Partners at the charming new Margot Fonteyne Theatre.  An added excitement for the young cast was the unexpected attendance of Anthony Dowell who had danced the Lover in “Lilac Garden” with Antoinette Sibley when Mr. Tudor himself had staged it for The Royal Ballet in 1968.  Although this was Mr. Tudor’s only personal visit for “Lilac Garden” to The Royal Ballet, Sallie Wilson had later staged it with Sylvie Guillem as Caroline, an event that Sallie had later discussed with Donald Mahler and I in some detail.

But this was the first time The Royal Ballet School attempted to grapple with the subtleties of such an interesting, emotionally charged ballet.  And I believe that they had a very rewarding time being introduced to the work of a great 20th century choreographic master, yet another defining aspect of their superb Royal Ballet School education.

Of course there was much else for them to perform and this was their graduation celebration and the year end performance for the entire school. One could sense the electricity in the air.  Numerous people, both from the School and others, expressed to me the joy of being able to see this wonderful ballet again and were looking forward with great anticipation to the performance, especially with live music and sets.   This of course served to make me feel even more responsible to the memory and work of Mr. Tudor.

The time finally came for The Opera House performance.  The conductor, Paul Murphy, had come to a number of the previous week’s rehearsals along with the wonderful violinist, Sergey Levitin, and a symbiotic relationship began to develop which added the necessary coordination needed for the subtle musicality to blossom from the essential artistic marriage of dancer and musician.

In the Grand Tier, I sat between Gailene Stock, the Marchioness of Douro (The Royal Ballet School’s Chairman) and around us were Jay Jolly, Sir Anthony Dowell, Anya Linden (The Lady Sainsbury), Alexander Grant, Wayne Sleep and numerous other supporters of this exciting annual event where the future can be seen to great advantage on The Royal Opera House stage, one of the great performance venues in the world.

Royal Ballet School, 2010 End of Year Performance of Lilac Garden. Photo by Johan Persson

I am so very happy to say that this performance of “Lilac Garden”, still an inexplicable rarity in London, the place of its birth, went extremely well, and that the four leads did quite a wonderful job bringing this extraordinary ballet back to the London stage.  In particular I must say that Her Lover, danced by William Bracewell and Caroline, danced by Angela Wood were particularly suited to these roles.  What a wonderful way to experience simultaneously a close to and a beginning of the next phase of their lives in the ballet world.

I was both happy and sad to leave London once again.  Happy to have seen “Lilac Garden” on The Royal Opera House stage and to have been involved once again with The Royal Ballet School’s Annual Matinee, yet sad to leave London, one of my favorite cities in the world and having to say goodbye to many old and new friends.

I must also express gratitude to International Dance Supplies and the Leche Trust along with Ricki Gail Conway for making all of this possible.

In closing I can only hope that Mr.Tudor would have been pleased with the results.  I certainly felt honored to also have been able to bring this glorious ballet back to The Royal Opera House stage.  But then he most certainly would not have let anyone know his true feelings.  We can only live in speculation.

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