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Donald Mahler: Full Circle

September 15, 2010 1 comment

Donald Mahler, Senior Repetiteur Antony Tudor Ballet Trust

It is strange how, if one has lived long enough, some stories which had begun in the past and having made a full circle reveal certain truths not clear at the beginning. This particular story took 54 years to play out. 

In 1956, I left New York and my life there to journey to Toronto where having been helped by Mr. Tudor, I joined the National Ballet of Canada. Coincidently, it was on the very same day Sally Brayley Bliss also joined the company. This was the beginning of five years of joy allied with many tribulations. 

Having studied with Margaret Craske at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, I now had to take classes with our Ballet Mistress, Betty Oliphant. She professed to teach the Cecchetti method but, her idea of it was largely at variance with what I had learned previously with Miss Craske who after all had written or co-authored the books from which Betty had gleaned whatever knowledge she had. The problem was that she made the work extremely dry, taking out of it most of the dance quality which was actually the point of the Cecchetti “method.” This did not make me a “happy camper!” 

Just at this moment into all of our lives came a wonderful, vivacious lady – a person of enormous knowledge and full of exciting and encouraging energy. This was Peggy van Praagh.

Peggy van Praagh, Courtesy National Library of Australia

She had been a lead dancer with the Rambert Ballet in the 1930’s when Tudor was creating his first great works. She created the roles of “An Episode in his Past” in Lilac Garden, the solo in the first song in Dark Elegies and the Russian Ballerina in Gala Performance among others. In addition she had studied principally and intensively with Margaret Craske at her studio in London and was an authority on Cecchetti.

So, here was Peggy in Toronto, teaching and rehearsing us and inspiring us as well. Although she knew Gala Performance from her Rambert days, that version was different from that which Tudor had staged for Ballet Theatre. Peggy was to go to the Royal Swedish Ballet the next year to put it on for them and was obliged to learn this revised version. Tudor sent her to Toronto to relearn the ballet, as his most recent version for Ballet Theatre was in rehearsal then. Killing several birds with one stone, she also took the opportunity at the same time to teach us and rehearse Ashton’s “Les Rendezvous.

What a wonderful time we had. Everyone adored her. She, however, was somewhat in conflict with Celia and Betty. She was told not to encourage us to jump so high, turn so many pirouettes and generally not to be so encouraging and popular! She told me she had been treated similarly by England’s Royal Ballet and Ninette de Valois. Explaining how, often in her life, she had to “bite the bullet” and accept such things and go on with her work she and I grew to sympathize with one another. She was far wiser and more experienced in the ways of the world than I, and helped me with advice which got me over many a rough spot.

Celia had also danced some of the same roles as Peggy at The Rambert Ballet, although not as a creator. Peggy had technique and artistry and Celia had artistry but suffered from technical weaknesses. As dancers following in Celia’s footsteps we were inclined to follow her lead. In works which had great technical demands, this could lead to an over emphasis on the drama and less on the accuracy of the dancing. In Gala Performance we were dancing on the edge and too often “over the top.” This was the situation at that time with what Peggy saw of Gala Performance.

I think it must have been very hard for her to accept the “new” version, so different was it to what she knew from her time with Tudor in London. After our rehearsal period was over, the company went down to Washington, D.C. for performances at an open air theater in Rock Creek Park. Along with us came Gala Performance and Peggy. On the day of the first performance of Gala one of the four boys in the Russian Ballerina movement fell down hurting himself and had to be replaced by the dancer playing the Conductor (a very small mime role). Reaching down into the bottom of the barrel, I was told that I had to go on as the Conductor. Being new in the company and not having even been an understudy I protested that although I had seen the ballet I really did not know the part. Nevertheless I was ordered on, only being told that someone would tell me when to go on and when to come off. So, I did it, not knowing at all what I was going to do. I made my hair wild as though I had been in an explosion, put some red makeup on the end of my nose as though I had had too much to drink and on I went. I do not know now what I did except to pretend to mimic the music, flailing my arms about in time with it.

The next day, having seen the performance, Peggy came up to me and said “Tudor has ruined Gala and you (me!) were the only funny thing in the whole performance!” Later on Celia came to me and said rather scathingly that Peggy told her I was the only funny thing in the performance… this did not do me any good as Celia had danced the Russian Ballerina role! At the end of the engagement I, Sally Bliss and several of the dancers drove back with Peggy to New York in an open convertible after which, I never saw Peggy again.

Kirsty Martin & Adam Bull in Australian Ballet's performance of Gala Performance

Now, fifty-four years later! Sally phoned me and said that The Australian Ballet wanted to do Gala on a program paying tribute to Dame Peggy van Praagh for the 100th Anniversary of her birthday. She had founded the company many years before, and was greatly revered. Sally Bliss said that as Sallie Wilson had staged it sometime before they could perform it, but only if a representative of The Tudor Trust came over to check and coach it. Who did she send, but me! I was truly thrilled! 

How extraordinary that this part of my life came around, full circle. Peggy again! They were fascinated by my story of our time together and howled with laughter about my “prowess” as the conductor. What a wonderful company, beautifully trained and simply a joy to work with. I think that the performance was very fine, being danced with a classical purity revealing the true humor inherent in Mr. Tudor’s choreography. I was assisted by the Company’s Ballet Mistress Wendy Walker, who had years ago been in American Ballet Theatre and who now actually staged the piece. 

Now here is the point of this long, long epistle. Tudor did not ruin Gala as Peggy said. What she had seen those years ago was that Celia, as much as I admired her, because of her technical insecurity had overdone the humor and turned it into a farce rather than the brilliant satire that it is!! It is a great ballet but so difficult to strike the right balance in staging it!   

Kirsty Martin in Australian Ballet's performance of Gala Performance

I learned so much from working with those wonderful dancers down under. To act or not to act? That is another question…for another time.