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Diana Byer, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Ballet, on Coaching Lilac Garden for American Ballet Theatre:

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment

What could be more exciting than getting a phone call from Kevin McKenzie, Artistic Director of American Ballet Theatre, asking me to assist him in restaging and coaching Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden. It was a gratifying experience in every way.

To spark interest in the cast before rehearsals I made a few copies of the 1963 Dance Perspectives two-part series on Tudor as well as a short essay Tudor wrote on Lilac Garden.  Once we began rehearsals I also brought in two copies of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares for the cast to share.

I realized after the first rehearsal that the challenge for me was how to give the dancers insight into their characters, not just work on the overall shape of the ballet, the steps and spacing.  ABT’s dancers are exquisitely talented with strong, clear ballet skill.  How would I encourage them to empty their minds of technique and let only the movement enter, what would I do to get them to become their character rather than act it out? Hugh Laing said in Dance Perspectives: “You can’t be a dancer in Tudor ballets.  Everything is based on classical technique, but it must look non-existent.” That’s very difficult to achieve.

All of the dancers came into rehearsal already knowing the ballet. I saw a run-through, the first the dancers had done.  It was already beautifully rehearsed.  After the run-through we sat down together and talked about the story and the characters. I reminded the corps that Tudor never let you feel you were just a member of the corps.  You were always an important character and there were no minor roles.  I spoke with the dancers about how the guests at the party don’t know it’s a sad story (even though it actually is).  They are having a good time.  We talked about the need for every dancer to pay particular attention to how they walk and run. We discussed how important it is to remember that the ballet consists of short scenes, all of which take place in the same spot, a garden. So they must walk and run as though they are on grass, very different from how they walk and run in other ballets.  We talked about the need to explore how their gestures define their character.  We also considered how each dancer at the party is an individual with a separate relationship with Caroline.

Of course, spacing, partnering, movement intention, music and phrasing were all addressed.  But we also worked on how to be still and quiet, how the eyes are part of movement, how to make the gestures real, executed in a human way.  I mentioned a quote from Karnilova which I found in the April 1982 issue of Ballet News. “Not long ago, [Tudor and I] were talking about how things are today, and I chided him for not doing more. What, I asked, is the difference between now and then?” and he said, “in those days I had people who happened to be dancers, and now I have dancers who are not always people.”

ABT’s dancers were so willing, so interested and interesting, and so respectful of Tudor’s work.

I spent a lot of time rehearsing Melanie Hamrick.  This was her first Caroline and because she was replacing another dancer, she had very limited time to prepare.

Melanie immersed herself in Lilac Garden by listening to Chausson’s Poème each night. And we talked each day. About putting aside everything she worked so hard on in other ballets. About not worrying how she looked doing the movement but rather the importance of giving the movement its full value as movement and not as a beautiful looking pose or line. About trying ‘to speak’ as she did the movement, saying something Caroline would say. And about leaving Melanie outside the room and bringing Caroline in, a very hard challenge. She was very brave and courageous as she peeled away the layers of herself to find Caroline’s voice.

I have always found it interesting to stage and coach a ballet on different companies and dancers, especially when it’s Tudor repertory were working on. Each company comes into rehearsal with a different type of training and style, different ways of thinking about what dancing is, and a different sense of how to get their intention across to the audience.

When it all comes together it’s very rewarding. It’s satisfying and special for everyone -the stager, the dancers, the musicians and especially the audience.

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