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SALLY BLISS KEYNOTE CORPS DE BALLET INTERNATIONAL – JUNE 22, 2011

September 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Sally Brayley Bliss, Trustee

This speech is how my life, from very humble beginnings in Halifax, NS, Canada became interwoven with one of the great master choreographers of the 20th Century.

Antony Tudor: …my mother mentioned his name to me when I was a dance student, approximately ten years old.  My teachers were Latvian immigrants.  They were Russian trained and certainly had never heard of him.

Tudor was an important choreographer in my mother’s world.  I don’t know why she knew about him, but she was a true Balletomane, the name for lovers of Ballet in those days.  But she knew all about his ballets:  Lilac Garden, Dark Elegies, and more.  At that time in Canada, Celia Franca, a former dancer with The Rambert Ballet during Tudor’s time there who then went on to dance with The Royal Ballet, formerly called Sadler’s Wells Ballet, was brought to Canada to found a National Ballet.

Celia had worked with Tudor and danced in his ballets at Rambert.  She revered him.  Upon founding the NBC, besides the classical repertoire, she brought in four Tudor works:  Lilac Garden, Dark Elegies, Gala Performance, and Offenbach in the Underworld, a work he created for a small company in Philadelphia. Resetting it for Canada he developed and refined the work and it became an established ballet in NBC’s repertoire.  

I  joined the company and had the honor of dancing in 3 of those 4 ballets in the repertoire at that time.  My mother was to me amazing, having known of him from when he first arrived in the U.S., and opening my mind to this great choreographer, was pretty special. 

How interesting a young dancer, born in London, living in Nova Scotia, Canada in the late 40s, early 50s, by a twist of fate, meets this great chorographer of the 20th century; and how my life connected with him throughout my career!  He is the Godfather of my eldest son, Mark, and I have been given the task of sustaining his legacy for future generations of dancers.

I had six great years with NBC and decided I really wanted to move to NY to study.  I did visit New York before moving and I remember my first class with Tudor:  I stood in the back, hoping to hide, then I heard “Hey, Maple Leaf Forever, come up here!”  I was petrified!  How he knew I was from Canada so quickly I’ll never know.

I moved to New York in 1962 and was accepted as a dancer into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.  At that time the new the Director of the Ballet, was Dame Alicia Markova, whom I loved.  She was funny, respectful, taught a terrible ballet class, but that was ok because we had most of our classes with Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske. 

I had the honor of dancing the Prelude from Les Sylphides with her coaching was me.  Remarkably, Les Sylphides was the very first ballet I saw at age 5.  Markova was dancing the same prelude, and here she was twenty years later coaching me in that same part.  Markova was a great friend of, guess who… ? Antony Tudor, who created the role of Juliet in his magnificent Romeo & Juliet for her. 

Markova created “Ballet Evenings” for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and they were creative with major ballets.  Our first evening was Les Sylphides, then small works such as Dolin’s Pas de Quartre, Petipa’s  Rose Adagio, and we closed with Folkine’s Scheherazade.  But the third ballet evening was very exciting.  Markova convinced Tudor to do the American premiere of his work Echoing of Trumpets that he created on the Royal Swedish Ballet.  But best of all she somehow convinced him to create a brand new work on us.  It was called Concerning Oracles and the evening ballet closed with Bournonville’s ballet, La Ventana.

This was maybe highlight of my life.  I was cast in both the Tudor ballets and La Ventana, and not only that, he had me learn every part in both ballets, except the little girl in Trumpets (I was 5’8”, and not a little girl type…).  For at least eight weeks we worked with him around the clock.  We would stop only to dance in the Opera Ballets, come off stage, and go to work until midnight (no unions at that time).  Can you imagine what an incredibly exciting learning experience this was for all of us?  This period is still in my memory.  In the end I danced the tough woman in Echoing of Trumpets, and an incredible pas de deux in Concerning Oracles.  In the last scene, Lance Westergard was a young boy; we were a family picnicking in a French garden.  I was an old, dowdy aunt and for some odd reason Lance dreamt of me as a sexy lady.  I stripped down from my dowdy clothes to a frilly, pink peignoir and we danced this pas de deux which kept building, and every time the audience was expecting Lance to lift me, I lifted him.  He was 5’5” and I was 5’8”.  It was hilarious and actually brought the house down.  Lance and I were totally in the dark while learning it.  We had no idea it was funny.  Imagine having a ballet by Antony Tudor created on you? 

During my tenure at the Met, there were highlights and lowlights: Franco Zeffirelli took me up to wardrobe and designed my costume for the opening night of the new Met’s Anthony & Cleopatra, with choreography by Alvin Ailey. 

In the ballet in the Opera La Pericole, I was dancing the lead, and the English actor, Cyril Richard, playing a comedic role, joined me in a partnered cartwheel at the ballet’s end; and, somehow he ended up on top of me, flat out, my tutu over my head.  We looked at each other and with no music, got up, did it again perfectly. 

The second opening of the new Met was La Giaconda.  It’s a long story, but my partner drank himself into oblivion and dropped me on every lift – a disaster – a moment I will never forget.  It’s funny now….

It was around this time I married Anthony Bliss and felt it important for me to leave the Met.  Tudor was about to restage Echoing of Trumpets for Ballet Theatre and convinced Lucia Chase to take me into the company, and I danced the same role – the tough woman

After one season, which was again a great experience, Robert Joffrey asked me to join his company to dance the leads in six ballets.  His Pas des desses, Taglioni, Arpino’s Viva Vilvaldi and Elegy, and Ruthanna Boris’s Cakewalk in the part of Venus, Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony, and Lew Christianson’s Jinx.  I couldn’t resist the offer and so accepted the invitation. I danced the season five months pregnant with my 1st son.

Under Robert Joffrey’s direction, I danced two seasons with NYCO as leading dancer in Joffrey’s Manon & Arabella, Frank Cosaro’s Trovatori and Prince Igor with Edward Villella. (I can’t remember for the life of me who choreographed…).

At that time the great dance educator, Lillian Moore, retired and Robert Joffrey asked Jonathan Watts and me (both of had just retired) to take over the apprentice program at The Joffrey School.  This turned into a very productive second company, The Joffrey II Dancers.  Jonathan left and for the next 15 years I developed a successful company of emerging dancers, choreographers, designers, composers and administrators. We did a number of Tudor ballets coached by Tudor himself.  We commissioned five new works a year, which we produced, and we did ballets by Joffrey and Arpino.  We toured many months of the year and many alumni went on to great success:  Eileen Brady, Billy Forsythe, Choo San Goh, Tina La Blanc, Elizabeth Parkinson, Glen Edgerton, to name but a few..

During the beginning of the 80s, I went down to the Joffrey School to pick new dancers (Bob had taken about eight of my 12).  I was intrigued by this young boy who jumped like an antelope.   He was very green but I liked him.  After I picked him I found out he was Ronald Reagan’s son, Ron.  That was a trip.  We lived through the campaign, secret service, the inauguration, Ron’s elopement, and the shooting of the President.  Ironically, we were on tour in “Lincoln” Nebraska the day it happened.  Ron went on to the 1st company and did well, but left for a more lucrative career in the media.

During this time I was on the board of NARB, later and now called RDA, where I adjudicated festivals – 2 in the PNW, one S.E., one N.E. and the mid-states for the 1st national conference.  I also taught at many of these festivals.  These festivals were a very important part of the development of dance in America.   

After these fifteen years, it was time for me to move on.  I continued teaching, advising, consulting, and making speeches, and my first love, encouraging young dancers and choreographers to continue in their profession.

In 1987 I was appointed by President Reagan to be a member of the National Council on the Arts for six years:  we were the Board of Directors for the NEA.  It was very hard work and a fragile time.  The right-wing wanted to do away with government funding for the Arts.  Jesse Helms was the outspoken hero for the right.  It was so stressful.  To be honest, with a lot of hard work the Endowments does still exist, but it remains tenuous.  That whole experience could be a speech on its own.  If nothing else, I learned one hell of a lot.  I’m honored to have been there but it was probably one of the most difficult experiences of my life.

My mentors, Antony Tudor, died in the spring of 1987; Alvin Ailey, died in 1988, and Robert Joffrey died in 1989; and my husband and father died in 1991, within a week of each other.  This time was sad for me, but it was a busy time and probably good.

Upon Tudor’s death, I was appointed co-executor of his Estate, and named sole Trustee of his ballets, which became The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust. This entails that his ballets are staged and performed as near to his expectations as possible.  I have répétiteurs who stage his works all over the world.

It is my mantra to make sure Tudor’s ballets are seen worldwide and never lose their artistic integrity.  His ballets are not about steps; they are about nuance, gesture, soul, quality of movement, and musicality.  The Trust has excellent répétiteurs, many of whom worked with Tudor when he was staging, creating and coaching.

We held a centennial conference at Juilliard, Lincoln Center, New York in 2008.  We had approximately 300 attendees.  It was very successful with Tudor classes, taught by former Tudor students; panel discussions with Tudor dancers and with writers and musicians; workshop performances of four of his works :  excerpts of Undertow, Juilliard; Little Improvisations, JKO School; Continuo, ABT II; and Judgment of Paris, New York Theatre Ballet.  We had a wonderful reception for everyone to get together, which culminated in a performance by the Juilliard students in his great masterpiece, Dark Elegies.  Maybe most special were the remembrances which we videotaped with each attendee, their thoughts and memories, many of which brought tears to our eyes; as did the remembrances of Tudor’s relatives, who traveled all the way from New Zealand to our event.

Out of this we have created a video of the event, and best of all a book.  If you are interested, we have them for sale on our website http://antonytudor.org/store.html. The proceeds for the sale of this book and DVD will fund an endowed scholarship in Tudor’s name at Juilliard.

We are at this time developing and launching The Antony Tudor Dance Studies Curriculum for college and university dance programs.  We will discuss this tomorrow.

In 1995 I was asked to be Executive Director of Dance St. Louis, one of the few dance only presenters in the country.  We started a unique educational program throughout the state.  We raised funds to bring all kinds of dance to St. Louis, the best in every field:  Rennee Harris, HipHop; ABT, full length Romeo & Juliet; Nacho Duardo’s company from Madrid; Paul Taylor; Hubbard Street; San Francisco Ballet; The National Ballet of Mexico; Tango Times II; Groupo Corpo, Brazil; Sydney Dance Theatre; Miami City Ballet; Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre; Mark Morris; and Pibololus.  We brought these companies back many times during my tenure, and through this work we developed a very intelligent dance audience.  They know what’s good and bad.  I’m proud of this legacy.  What is really important is that there is dance audience out there – east coast, west coast and mid-states.

Before I close, I’ve had the honor of serving on many Boards including: The Board of The Joffrey Ballet; Chairman of the Board of Visitors of the North Carolina School of the Arts; Board of Trustees of New England College, Henniker, New Hampshire; Advisory Board of the Kathryn and Gilbert Miller Health Institute for Performing Artists; The Dance USA Board, and The Paul Taylor Dance Company, among others.  I’ve been thrilled to receive many wonderful national and local awards as well. 

Antony Tudor has been the thread throughout our life in dance.  Are we lucky?  Yes!  Are we finished?  No!  There is always so much more to do.  This is my “Examining of Tradition and Innovation” throughout our careers, and Antony Tudor is the legacy.  We want his legacy to continue forever.  He was a genius and he must not be forgotten.

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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.

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.

Sally Brayley Bliss: State of the Trust

July 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Sally Brayley Bliss Accepting Visionary Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award

So much has been happening with The Trust that it’s time to update everyone.I’ll go back to mid-March with Colorado Ballet’s excellent performance of Tudor’s Echoing of Trumpets. This great ballet does not get performed often. Some people worry about the subject: war. To me, it is a timeless work and very apropos. It is with great respect that I applaud Gil Boggs, Director of Colorado Ballet for presenting Echoing of Trumpets. Donald Mahler did an exceptional restaging of the work. The dancers really rose to the occasion and danced with a rare sensitivity, intelligence; and, brought such life to the work. Bravo to Gil Boggs, his staff, and dancers for their great performances.

I returned to St. Louis and continued working on Little Improvisations with COCA (Center Of Creative Arts), a very good performing arts school which has developed a much improved dance program. They did a fine job with Little Improvisations. There were 3 casts of girls and one boy who danced all performances. I was so proud of these young dancers (see pictures). This wasCOCA’s first time to work on a master choreographer’s ballet. For me, the fulfillment of seeing these young dancers develop from their first rehearsal through their performances was amazing. Again, having intelligence, while learning and dancing a Tudor ballet, is of vital importance. These dancers were totally there.

COCA Dancers in Little Improvisations. Photo by Cyndy Maasen

A perfect segue into my next report: two marathon meetings on my daunting idea to create a Tudor curriculum for university, college and conservatory dance programs. As I’ve travelled from universities to colleges through the years, I realized how perfect Tudor’s ballets (not all), his classes, his production classes, his use of music, and his use of gesture, and, the drama of his works, are a natural for dance programs. So here we are, and a lot of Tudor dancers agree, it might work. A year from now we would like to launch with the CORPS (Council of Organized Researchers for Pedagogical Study) Conference, June 22-25, 2011, Kansas/ City, MO headed by University of Missouri, Kansas, Dance Chair, and President of this organization, Paula Weber. This school will implement the program and test the Tudor Curriculum. They will learn & perform Dark Elegies as part of the pilot program.

The Curriculum Committee is myself, Sally Brayley Bliss, Trustee, The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust; Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen, Chair, Dance Program, Principia College, Ilsa, IL; Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal, Ballet Faculty, Washington University; James Jordan, Repetiteur, Tudor Trust & Ballet Master, Kansas City Ballet; and, Amanda McKerrow, Repetiteur, Tudor Trust. As we develop we will add university/college/conservatory dance faculty and Chairs. This is a taste of what is in the future. As we move along we will keep updating you.

COCA Dancers in Little Improvisations. Photo by Cyndy Maasen

A few other items to report: I was honored to be given St. Louis’s Grand Center Visionary Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts. I was thrilled to be included among so many distinguish artists and supporters of the Arts.

I am on the board of the “National Society of Arts and Letters,” and will be heading up a committee of former dancers in their choreography competition in February of 2010.

I was also on an adjudication committee for Grand Center’s September 25thDancing in the Streets” here in St. Louis. It will be its fourth year and plethora of dance companies and schools will perform on four different stages in the Arts area called Grand Center. It lasts all day into the evening. Thousands of people turn out, not only from St. Louis but from other states, towns and cities. It’s a grand event. Most importantly, it introduces dance to a non-dance audience and, hopefully, develops tastes of new audiences for the future.

I’m now in Prince Edward Island, Canada, my summer home for over 40 years. It’s beautiful (As you may have seen on Regis & Kelly recently!) I’m working on all the projects you have just read about. I’ll keep you all updated as best I can.

Sally Brayley Bliss

Antony Tudor: My Godfather, By Mark B. Bliss

May 15, 2010 2 comments

Rather than just cut and paste the introduction from our new book, Antony Tudor: Centennial, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write a separate account of what this project has meant to me.

Book Cover

As a kid, you always hear adults in your life complain that you don’t appreciate what you have, or the people in your life or how different things are from when they were kids. This information goes in and out of your ears without a second thought. “Old people,” you think. And then a funny thing happens. You age. Suddenly you’re saying the same thing to the youngsters in your life and forget how easy it was for you to dismiss this sage advice, much to your chagrin. It’s the real circle of life, a kick in the rear to remind you that you are only getting to witness yourself in a smaller being.

I found myself contemplating this very issue as I undertook the editorship of the Centennial Book project. As I steamed ahead into developing content for the website and (later on) the book, I understood the uniqueness of my childhood in a completely different light. I didn’t understand that my godfather was famous. I knew he was important in the dance world, but everyone in my parents circle of friends seemed to be, so what was the big deal? It’s not that I didn’t like the perks of growing up cradled in the arts world. I was an extra in Petrushka with Nureyev. I got to go to the White House and have Amy Carter tell me that she and her mom made all the cookies for the kids at the reception for the Met’s presentation of Babar. Ron Reagan, Jr. was in my mother’s ballet company. Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino were like friendly uncles. I got to go backstage at the Met. My family was in People Magazine for an article that asked “What do the Metropolitan Opera and the Joffrey Ballet have in common? Wedded Bliss!” My brother and I slept under the tables of the best restaurants in New York City after every performance. All of these weren’t typical childhood experiences, for sure.

I would say that I developed an appreciation for ballet at an early age, but my passions were invested in things like hockey, baseball, comic books and Star Wars. I certainly liked ballet better than opera, which for some reason put me to sleep within minutes of the curtain rising until I was much older. I loved ballets like Daryl Gray’s Threads from String of Swing and Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo. While those ballets were fun, I remember Tudor’s Continuo sticking with me in a way I wouldn’t experience again until a few years ago when I saw The Leaves Are Fading and Echoing of Trumpets. Yes, I knew Antony Tudor had something to do with the ballet world. But that wasn’t what I liked about him as a godfather.

Antony Tudor, Mark Bliss, Nancy Zeckendorf, 1980

I got a kick out of his English accent. Nobody I knew had a godfather from another country and that was very cool. He always had a sparkle in his eye and a playful wink would follow. His laughter was infectious, even though I didn’t get most of his jokes. He didn’t condescend when speaking to me, and would always include me in the adult conversation. He gave me unique gifts, including books that I still have today. The picture in this blog is my most treasured memory of Tudor. He and my wonderful godmother, Nancy Zeckendorf, took me to see The Black Stallion, which was my favorite book as a kid.

Before I took on the job as editor of the book and website, I knew only a little more of Tudor than I did as a kid. This project not only allowed me to play a part in preserving his legacy, it was also an opportunity to learn about the Tudor I didn’t know. Reading all the books about him, sorting through archival photographs, reviewing remembrances of his impact on others lives; all of these things helped me to understand who my godfather was. I am proud of the effort the team put into this project. My mother was a fabulous resource, as our leader and chief historian. Tara Moira McBride was the planner, focusing our meetings and figuring out the logistics of this monumental task. And Adria Rolnik, having served as Centennial Celebration event coordinator and now as archivist, took inventory of our vast photo collection and tracked down the needed permissions for each one. The result is our terrific website and now a book that I think everyone will find was worth the wait.

Antony Tudor was a great godfather. While I didn’t appreciate what he did for the world of ballet, and barely understood what he actually did for a living, I have no regrets about the fact that I enjoyed the company of my godfather for the man he was to me, not the legend he was to everyone else. Actually, I do regret that he died before I became an adult and could grasp the impact he had on the arts. I would love to talk to him about his childhood in England and the fascinating early days of the Rambert Ballet Club. I’d love to be able to ask him about his methodology. I’d love to be able to appreciate his wit from a mature perspective. But this is as futile as telling a child about the good old days.

Instead, I can remember what my godfather meant to me as a child.

Excerpt From Book

Excerpt From Book

Excerpt From Book

Sally Bliss: Travels of the Trustee

April 19, 2010 1 comment

The past few months have been a hectic travel time for me fulfilling my role as Trustee of Antony Tudor’s Estate, Board Member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company, and other dance related business.

I really enjoyed David Parsons’ new and improved full evening work, “Remember Me,” based on famous and popular opera arias sung by members of the East Village Opera Company.  I’d seen the work in St. Louis in November and liked it, but the finished product at the Joyce Theatre in New York was even better.  The Parson’s dancers were wonderful.  For me it worked and was one of the best dances he has created.

From New York I traveled to Indianapolis, arriving in time for Butler University’s dress rehearsal of its’ mid-winter dance program.  Included in the program was Antony Tudor’s “Dark Elegies,” staged by Donald Mahler, Senior Repetiteur of the Tudor Trust.  What an eye opener for me!   Butler has a very strong dance program with talented choreographers on staff and lovely dancers.  I had seen some of the students dance in St. Louis (my home) as guest artists with Alexandria Ballet, but what I saw here was a quality and level of performance I was not prepared for.

I was so startled and immediately pleased, starting with the amazing dress rehearsal right through to opening night.  Each of the Mahler “Kindertotenlieder” songs one though five was danced with incredible reserve and great intelligence.   Each and every dancer in the program showed a level of depth I have rarely seen before.

It was after seeing this performance of “Dark Elegies,” I knew I was on the right track:  developing a Tudor Syllabus for university dance programs is a MUST; a priority at present, and, most important for the future of Antony Tudor and his great ballets.  I hope there is a DVD of Butler’s performance we can use as part of our syllabus.

As I mentioned, there were other dances on the program, three of which were of a pretty high standard.  As I get older, having watched a great many dances/ballets, I find myself maybe a bit jaded and less and less enthusiastic about choreography today.  This program made me sit up and watch.

I arrived home from Butler University and went into a joint rehearsal of “Little Improvisations” with COCA, Center of Creative Arts, a St. Louis performing arts school, and Principia College, a liberal arts college in Elsa, IL, (see previous blog for more in Principia.)  I’ve worked with both before but was so pleased to see how much they had improved.  I can’t believe what a difference only one year of study can do.  It was quite amazing.  Again, I’m impressed with the minds of university/college students.

I had a brief stay at home in St. Louis, saw a well danced performance by River North Chicago and then back to New York for two days of Paul Taylor.  I arrived in time to get to City Center theatre where I saw three dances by Paul Taylor.   “Brandenburgs,” created in 1988, was maybe the finest dancing and performance by the company I have ever seen.  The two New York premieres, also by Paul, were quite different from each other.  The first was “Brief Encounters.”  I liked it a lot.  The music was Debussy and, as with many of his works, there were humorous moments.  The evening ended with “Also Playing,” a very hilarious, fun piece about Vaudeville, that was very well danced.  It was a perfect end to Paul Taylors 80th Birthday Gala, my reason for being there.

The next morning Donald Mahler and I went to see the almost completed renovation of the company’s new office and studio space.  It is absolutely terrific.  I listened to Donald and Paul reminisce about their time at Syracuse University.  At that time there was no dance program at Syracuse, nevertheless it was there they both discovered dance.  So too did both give up their scholarships to study in New York.  And, as we say, the rest is history:  Paul went to Juilliard, where he worked with Antony Tudor and then followed Tudor to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School.

The following week I headed to Denver for Colorado Ballet’s stage rehearsals of Tudor’s “Echoing of Trumpets.”  Be sure to check out our News section on the website for reviews and commentary on that performance.

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