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ACTING FOR THE DANCER by Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen

November 15, 2011 Leave a comment

L'Academie Americaine de Dance de Paris -- Photo Credit: Vincent Desnoes

     Shut out — unable to buy a ticket to the Paris Opera’s performance of Othello because it was sold out; an opera! —  like a rock concert in the States. I doubted whether too many operas were ever sold out back home; maybe at the Met . . . maybe not.

     So why did I care? I had plenty to keep me busy while in Paris, but I was truly disappointed at not being able to see Othello, and I’m not even that big an opera fan. The answer was obvious: Othello is a great story, told by a master. I had recently seen the original Shakespeare version directed by that most quixotic and surprising of theatre/opera directors, Peter Sellars. I had loved it. Iago stayed with me, as did Desdemona. That’s my personal test of great theatre; does it change me while I’m at the theatre and, then, most important of all, does it stick with me months after — that performance had. So, what had made it so powerful? And then it hit me: the subtlety and complexity of Shakespeare’s Othello derives from the fact that his characters are human; they are rich, contradictory and layered; we can relate to them on a very personal level.

     This is not an article on Shakespeare, it is an article on ballet and ballet dancers. In this essay I will make the case for actor training for ballet dancers.  I will use examples from Antony Tudor’s work and my teaching experience and suggest that teaching ballet dancers to be strong actors is both necessary and teachable.

    Back to Shakespeare.  Here’s the connection: when ballet enables us to empathize fully with the characters we are watching we leave better for it; changed, challenged. However, and this is where the two diverge, when it is solely about beautiful bodies doing amazing things in fabulous costumes we do not necessarily leave with, as dance historian Judith Bennehum puts it, “ a heightened sense of who we are and what we represent”. This is a critical point, and one which I believe is often overlooked.

     Ballet is many things to many people. For me, it is a way to communicate without the need for speech; to find freedom through its seeming opposite — dedication and discipline; to approach universal ideals of beauty, control and grace. It is also a unique opportunity to engage others in thinking about the human condition, if approached with that intention. Unfortunately, it rarely is. Most ballets lack the emotional depth of Shakespeare; they are more interested in technique and less in character development. This should come as no surprise, given ballet’s origins when the importance of display and elegance often took precedence over the intrinsic potential of the art form. Of course, ballet has come a long way since Catherine de Medici and the court of the Sun King; but we can go further.

     In the world of ballet, the 20th century English choreographer Antony Tudor stands out as a shining example of a choreographer who went further, who got what Shakespeare was after: the turmoil and transcendent possibilities of the human condition; the inevitable consequences of both duty and selfishness, hope and despair.  Tudor brought real people to the stage through his characters, and had them reveal their inner lives to us, the audience, through the unlikely medium of classical ballet. Whether the ballet is about a forced marriage in Edwardian England (Jardin aux Lilas) or heinous war crimes during the German occupation in WWII (Echoing of Trumpets), we care about the story that is unfolding, care about the individual lives it reveals. Tudor accomplished what all great artists seek to accomplish: to make the story unfolding on stage relevant to the audience; to have them respond to the universal truths, trials, and triumphs which define each one of us.

     Tudor was also a master of comedy. Another mark of greatness for, through humour, we also find truth; often more easily, though not always less painfully. His comedies were poignant, sardonic peeks at the less glamorous side of things. From the ironic characterizations of diva ballerinas in Gala Performance   to the somewhat pathetic attempts at seduction in  Judgment of Paris  he saw with a laser-like eye what comedy always looks for– the asymmetry of life, the contradictions and the touching nuances . . . the unexpected.

     So where does all this take us? Although Tudor died in 1987 his work is consistently presented in such companies as American Ballet Theatre and throughout the world. He continues to be considered the “Stanislavsky of ballet “ a reference to the great Russian actor who founded the technique associated with honest gesture and powerful character development.  His musicality (The Leaves are Fading) and complex narrative (Pillar of Fire) are still stunning examples of a great artist’s work within the ballet genre. But his reputation is transient, as is so often the case in dance. Unlike the master works of visual artists, musicians and writers, ballets are quickly lost if not painstakingly videotaped and notated. The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust is doing an extraordinary job of preserving and sharing Tudor’s masterpieces under the energetic and visionary direction of Sally Brayley Bliss. This work is critical in large part because of Tudor’s masterly use of character. He is considered the Proust of ballet because of the strong development of narrative and character that identifies every masterpiece we know as “Tudor’s”.

     By contrast, many classical ballets use the characters involved as a way to move the plot along; to serve as scaffolding for the choreography. They don’t really matter, they simply exist as tools, not as people.

    On the other hand, Tudor has characters as real and tormented as any Lady Macbeth or Iago in almost every one of his dramatic ballets. Because of this ‘playwright-esque’ ability to create powerful characters within ballet choreography Tudor deserves to be studied in the same way as an art student studies (and copies) Rembrandt, or a music student Beethoven, or a theatre student, that’s right, Shakespeare. As it turns out, Mr. Tudor is the perfect choreographer for college and university dance programs because of his proclivity towards delving into deep, sociologically rich themes. For him it was not simply about technique or entertainment; it was about meaning. He meant for us to care about his narrative line, not simply follow it. It is the stuff of great literature, music and art — all of which he loved. It is still hard to define exactly where Tudor fits in today’s world of classical ballet, but he does clearly belong there; if nothing else, as an example of how it can be done . . . how it was done.

     My personal experience with Mr. Tudor goes back to my childhood. My mother studied with him both at Jacob’s Pillow and at the Metropolitan in NYC. She had been a theatre major in college and came to ballet quite late for a dancer. For exactly these reasons, Mr. Tudor was the perfect teacher for her. I grew up hearing stories about how he would single her out during class and say, “Now everyone, watch Trude run, she actually looks like she’s going somewhere! That’s what I want.” That interest in honest movement (movement that had a motivation and a need) was quintessential Tudor.

     Today’s dancers need that kind of attention to detail and motivation as much now as they did then. In our “continuous partial attention” 1  culture we can hardly wonder that our dancers seem lost when we ask them to fully engage in the moment . . . in one moment, not four scattered, disparate moments of multi-tasking-communication. The building blocks for powerfully projecting character on stage have not changed: To be fully in the moment; to be both kinesthetically and emotionally aware of your surroundings; to find honest gesture. These are skills I find are sorely lacking in most dancers these days. But they are skills, not gifts from above and, as such, I believe they can be learned.

     The lack of artistry or the inability to embody a character as a dancer, are common complaints among many dance professionals.  As a dance professor at Principia College (a small Midwestern, liberal arts college) I teach theatre movement, as well as dance, to both actors and dancers. I have observed this need for what I will call “artistry” first hand. I have also observed how it can be addressed, specifically for ballet dancers, but it can extend to all dancers. I believe that Antony Tudor’s oeuvre and legacy has much to teach us, and that exploring his work can bring illumination to the training of today’s dancers (and future choreographers); to make them artists, rather than simply athletes. I also believe, and have experienced this in my classes, that a combination of Laban Movement Analysis, Bartenieff Fundamentals, good old-fashioned Stanislavsky intention work and small doses of Alexander alignment can also work wonders.  

     For the last three summers I have had the privilege of guest teaching at L’Academie Americaine de Danse de Paris in the peaceful residential 16th  arr.  It has been a transformative experience as an artist/educator mainly because the Director, Brooke Desnoës, has allowed me autonomy in teaching the four week International Summer Intensive dancers in my “Acting for the Dancer” classes. Our philosophies for teaching dance are eerily similar. In her own words, “Respect, honesty and hard work are at the centre of everything we do. Classes are kept small and instructors get to know each student individually, in turn students are provided with encouragement and confidence to challenge themselves in new artistic ways.”

     Part of my guest teaching while at AADP included a traditional ballet class; this has enabled me to experiment with how best to coordinate the two so that the students learn in a circular pattern. The last two summers I introduced Laban’s eight effort actions, some Bartenieff Fundamentals and a few Alexander exercises. We did some character work with the Laban effort actions (i.e. wring, press and float to name a few), as I do with my theatre movement students. I also had the dancers do some work outside the classroom — observing gesture and movement in strangers.  This year, however, was the breakthrough.

     Having worked all year with the Tudor Trust Committee on the innovative Antony Tudor Dance Studies Curriculum for Colleges and Universities headed up by Sally Bliss, I was more fully aware of some aspects of Tudor’s work that I had not fully appreciated before. For one thing; his fascination with dancers who could embody their role was a defining factor in his process. This took me back to Tudor’s roots: he trained as an actor before he ever trained as a ballet dancer, and he studied music from a very young age. Therefore, I gave my dance students a scenario in which to work; something all actors are well acquainted with. We were not working with actual Tudor choreography as I am not a Tudor repetiteur, and, anyway, I wanted them to find honest gesture on their own to begin with . . .  to realize what that meant and how it felt; not an easy task for most ballet dancers.  Based on the concept that their movements should have meaning, should express something about the character they had chosen for themselves, I asked them to come up with pedestrian movement that was real. They were given a beginning, middle and end point, and a partner, but that was all.  This autonomy enabled them to have some ownership of the process, a key component in higher modes of learning. They also had to find a reason for their movement. I kept reminding them of the Tudor “mantra” which is to let the movement do the communicating and the facial expressions and other needed expression will follow. I had showed them excerpts from Jardin aux Lilas at the beginning of our time together and I kept referencing what they had seen, and playing bits of it again (specifically the opening scene) for clarification. They were not to recreate it, but to use it in their own work of creating honest gesture.

     They quickly learned to open up, to become less concerned with “getting it right” and more concerned with just doing it wholeheartedly. I explained that that sort of approach inevitably leads to honesty, as it is inherently honest.  As one student who had trouble finding expression in her dancing put it, “I learned that I must immerse my whole self and go past the point at which I feel “comfortable”.”2

     The final two days of classes included a scenario which I choreographed for them. The scenario follows:

     You are alone in a forest, sleeping; a noise wakes you; you get up and look for what it might have been. While  searching you are startled by another noise; you slowly move away but are drawn back to see if you can discover what it was; you do, and flee in horror, exiting stage left.

     I introduced this scenario in stages, giving some of the steps in technique class earlier on and then incorporating them into the final 72 count phrase. Repetition was critical as dancers are so accustomed to it, and especially need it when trying something new like this. Some of the comments from the group of older dancers with whom I worked the most are included below:

     From a French student: “Il faut effectuer les gestes sur scene sans les anticiper” or “You must not anticipate your gestures on stage.” 3 This idea of not anticipating what you know is coming is critical for honest responses on stage (sur scene). It is also very difficult and requires the dancer to understand and be able to recreate, time and again, the ability to be “in the moment” — a concept that seems harder for dancers to grasp than it is for actors. Perhaps it’s because, as my mentor in theatre movement Margaret Eginton from Asolo Conservatory explains, “dancers speak with steps and so need more in the moment preparation of their instrument   

    Another important piece of this puzzle is how dancers approach the work itself.  They are typically uncomfortable with “acting”. . . and rightly so. To be told to “Look happy now” or, “You need to look scared here” is very unnatural for dancers. They have been trained to do the steps well and to listen to the music, but mostly so that they will be on the beat with the others on stage; not as a catalyst for emotion. To graft onto a difficult combination of steps a feeling is hard for them and usually turns out badly; as I often say in class, “That was fake”.  We worked a lot with this issue right from the start. One of my students from the intensive puts it far better than I could:

       “I was never presented with the opportunity to be a character so fully that I truly felt I was that person. It is a completely different world.  Your exercises present dancers with a difficult challenge that is as much about self exploration as it is about discovering different characters. …I tried to embody the music. We learned to constantly dance in the moment and to observe those around us in order to comprehend the meaning or emotion behind a certain gesture.” 4

     As Desnoës puts it, “ “Incorporating “Acting for the Dancer” classes into the summer curriculum has helped the young dancers to get ever so close to that artistic freedom experienced when one “becomes” a character. It is delightful to watch their faces when they are able to feel that for the first time. I am certain that this connection between dance and feeling the character remains with them as they continue their dance studies and, more importantly, kindles the artistic process inside them.”

     That “artistic process” is really what this work is all about. It has a lot to do with both discovering how to become a character and to embody the music, that elusive element that was also a key concept throughout their training. To really hear and feel the music, not just count it is something of an anomaly for many dancers today. Like the character work, however, it can be learned. Many times I have found that all a dancer needs is explicit permission to “let the music move you” from the choreographer or teacher and they are eager to do so.  All of the dancers found a road they could travel to find expressive gesture and honest movement . . . my basic goals for the class. 

     Antony Tudor is not the only ballet choreographer who has ever worked to find honesty in movement; but using Mr. Tudor’s works as an example of where this can be found in classical ballet has been most helpful. For today’s college dancer the use of various techniques to achieve this end seems both logical and in tune with the ideals of a liberal arts education. In exploring these paths some of them came from reading or hearing about exercises Mr. Tudor had used in his technique classes; some I observed while Tudor repetiteurs Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner worked with my dancers at Principia College. Other ideas came from Margaret Eginton’s coaching and observing her classes and my graduate work on my MFA where my thesis was on how to incorporate Laban Movement Analysis in my work with actors and dancers. Years of teaching theatre movement, choreographing and teaching ballet have also informed this practice and lead me in new and different ways.

     The overarching goal of training more artistic dancers through giving them a way to find expressive gesture is ongoing. In this age, dancers in university programs need to have both a goal and a map: the goal is to be able to fully express any character they may be asked to embody through their movement. The map is a clearly articulated yet flexible set of exercises and approaches that enable the dancer to arrive at honest gesture and let go of self-imposed limitations and fears. I don’t know if Mr. Tudor would be pleased if we reached this goal, but I know I would.

  1. “Does America Have ADD?,” U.S. News and World Report, March 26,2001, 24.
  2. Camille Kemache at AADP workshop, summer 2011, Paris, France
  3. Fanny  Serenque at AADP workshop, summer 2011, Paris, France
  4. Mikkailla Bolotenko at AADP workshop, summer 2011, Paris, France
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Paula Weber, CORPS de Ballet President on Tudor Curriculum

June 14, 2011 Leave a comment

What most intrigues you about Tudor’s teachings?  His incredible insight to human emotion and the way Tudor conveys this in his dances.  He knew how to touch the soul both in tragedy and comedy.  His ballets are timeless.  It is absolutely imperative that these works are never lost!!

Why is an Antony Tudor Dance Studies Curriculum necessary?  I feel that in today’s social media world we all spend a large amount of time in front of a screen – especially our young people who are so “connected.” I find it hard to reach the emotional quality that is so important for dance/dancers. Their eyes seem to have that glazed over “computer screen” look. Perhaps by studying the master of emotional sense through the Tudor Curriculum, students can bring heart back to their work by getting in touch with the most important part of dance – personal connection, personal feeling, the personal communication that happens between a dancer and the audience.

Accreditation ensures that the education provided by institutions of higher learning meets acceptable levels of quality.  How will the conference further that purpose?  The beauty of the CORPS de Ballet International Conference is the interaction of a membership of 90+ dance professors and representatives of approximately 50 colleges, universities and professional schools. It is our time for renewal, recharging, networking, and learning. Those attending the conference will learn directly about the Antony Tudor Dance Studies Curriculum and have the wonderful opportunity to work directly with Sally Brayley Bliss and the committee of scholars and répétiteurs. Even those members who don’t attend the conference will have the opportunity to learn about the curriculum through the CORPS website and the members’ forum. The knowledge we gain by this opportunity will be shared with our students and open doors for the Tudor curriculum group to have residencies at many of our schools. Exposing our dance students to the teachings of Antony Tudor is not only an historical experience, but also a rare dance training experience – Tudor was a master, and as with all great works projects, the intellectual growth and exposure to the artistry of the masters vastly enhances the education of our students. This exposure to such art is the quality of education that is absolutely essential as it fosters discovery, creativity and learning of the highest caliber.

What are the advantages to artist-in-residency programs for students, as opposed to summer institutes to train trainers, for example, or other methods of delivery?  I feel artist-in-residency programs are far more intensive to learning the art of dance.  They are more one-on-one, more in-depth.  The passing of knowledge becomes more multi-dimensional and detailed.  The experience is highly specialized, creating strong foundations of discipline and craft.

What evaluations do you use to assess the success of existing dance curriculums?  I feel assessment is judged by the success of our students upon graduation, and determined by what we bring to students during their four years of study with us – the curriculum (dance training, dance academics, general/specialized academics), performance opportunity, professional performance opportunity while in school, exposure to the masters and great works projects, residency projects and guest artist projects. Our degree is a BFA in performance and choreography.

Paula Weber is Chair of the Dance Division and a professor of dance with UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance. 

Kathleen Moore-Tovar: Antony Tudor Reflections

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Kathleen Moore-Tovar (Photo by Valerie Ford)

I knew two Mr. Tudors. The first one was the one who chose me to work with Ethan Brown to dance the last pas de deux in Leaves are Fading and to dance the 4th song in Dark Elegies. This man of elegant bearing had eyes that sparkled with wit and mischievousness. Though there was always serious work happening in the studio as he tried to get us to simplify our movement, to dance the steps just as they were, adding nothing, he would tease and joke too. For example, early on in rehearsing Leaves he said to Ethan, “I bet she’s a screamer.” Though my face turned as scarlet as my hair, I replied, “Ethan wouldn’t know.” and Ethan said something to the effect of, “I’d like to find out!” and we all had a laugh. Then we got back to working on making the last embrace in the duet have more of a passionate gasp. 

In Dark Elegies, there wasn’t the lightness of mood in the room as during Leaves rehearsals, the dance has too strong a subject, but there was still the constant work on lack of ornament in the body, and always, always, the focus on the music. Another aspect of working with Mr. Tudor was apparent during Elegies, the way he directed us as we toiled on the piece, created in the cast a great sense of community that allowed the work to be the powerful statement that he intended.  I am sure his process was intentional; a method used to create individuals deeply invested in the dance and each other so as to better attain the intent of his vision. This ballet remains my favorite work of his that I have danced.

The second Mr. Tudor was the man who picked me out of the corps de ballet to revive the role of Hagar in his masterpiece Pillar of Fire. Almost from the first day this was a torturous period in my career. He sat ram-rod straight at the front of the room, severe and never satisfied. He spoke little, having Sallie Wilson and Hugh Laing do much of the work, which created even more distance from him. He questioned me and never was my answer correct. He would have me spend almost an hour on one step, where again I would fail. I was often reduced to tears that I tried to shed only on my five minute break in a hall closet, refusing to give him the “pleasure” of seeing me cry. Throughout, Michael Owen was my support as well as my character’s support. Again I believe the whole process was intentional; Mr. Tudor tried to make me feel Hagar, find the truth of her with every fiber in my being. To this day, when I hear the Schoenberg music, my stomach tightens in response and I feel insecure and without options (despite the redemptive ending!). Since he died shortly before our premiere, I still wonder if he would have been satisfied with our performances, though I did have the honor of having Oliver Smith come backstage and tell me I had done well… so maybe?

Without a doubt Mr. Tudor positively influenced my approach to all future work I had at ABT and with The White Oak Dance Project. Though times with him were mostly difficult, whether physically or emotionally, I am thankful that I was given the opportunity to work with him relatively early in my career. Since he died when I was only 24 years old, I have fewer memories to remember him by than many others, but two I treasure are these: The first is merely a snapshot, perhaps the first time I saw him up close…he was sitting on one of the simple wooden benches that line the halls on the 2nd floor at ABT’s 890 studios. His hands were loosely clasped in his lap, his spine was erect but not stiff, his chiseled looking bald head was tilted in thought. He radiated the stature, grace and easy command of a high priest. There was power there. My second memory comes from that magical yet nervous time in the theatre…I was on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House around 6:15 pm, with the big, golden, silk curtain open and house lights illuminating the red velvet chairs so soon to be full of a discriminating audience. With my hair slicked back into a sleek low bun for my upcoming premiere of Leaves but with no stage makeup on yet, I was going through every moment of the piece, my blood full of butterflies. Mr. Tudor quietly crossed from downstage left to right, looking straight ahead. At quarter, before his exit, he turned slightly towards me, ran his hand across his head as if running it through his hair, and with a slight smile he said, “Looking like me tonight?” and then he continued on.

Nancy Zeckendorf: Eulogy For Antony Tudor, 1987

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Back row (L-R) Anthony Bliss, Sally Brayley Bliss, Rev. Grant Spalding, Seated: Antony Tudor, Mrs. "Kick" Erlanger holding Mark B. Bliss, Nancy Zeckendorf (Right) at Godson's Christening in 1968

Nancy Zeckendorf:  Dancer, Dear Tudor Friend and Philanthropist, Presenting her Eulogy for Antony Tudor:

I first met Tudor at Juilliard and studied with him there and at the old Met.  He was then Director of The Met Opera Ballet, where we also worked together.   He was my teacher, my favorite choreographer, my mentor, my inspiration, my conscience, but he was also my friend; and, in our later years a mutual trust seemed to have allowed me the role of go between and helper. 

Last August I received a letter from Tudor asking me to accompany him to The Kennedy Center for the Honors Award.  He went on in the letter to lament “even I will probably have to go through the tortures of a black tie, and probably tight shoes; and it will play hell with my old man routine.” 

But he dutifully went out to Syms and purchased the most elegant tuxedo.  He hadn’t worn one in years and he even managed to find a pair of comfortable shoes.  He wanted to take the trip by train and so we boarded Amtrak with a bag of freshly baked bran muffins for his special diet.  He polished off a few of these and then proceeded to eat anything and everything in sight for the next three days.  He even ordered a martini for lunch on the big day.  And I eyed him warily.  After all, I was supposed to take care of him; but he was fine and rejected the idea of a nap in favor of a trip to his favorite museum, The Freer, to pick up his Japanese postcards he loved so much. 

Every time we left the hotel during those three days he was surrounded by friendly faces asking him to please sign their books, or could they take his picture.  He was really quite surprised and rather pleased.  I don’t think that happened much in his life. 

The night of the awards presentation at the Kennedy Center was the most moving, enthralling experience of my life.  The moment for Tudor finally came.  Agnes DeMille brought down the house with her speech and Margot Fonteyn brought us all to tears when she said, “It is very fitting that he should receive this most prestigious Kennedy Center Honor because his extraordinary talent has enriched the whole art of dancing.” 

She held out her hand to Tudor, “Dear Antony, we the dancers and the public salute you and thank you for all you’ve given us.”  There were tears in Tudor’s eyes as he gave Margot and all of us his Buddha bow.  

It was the proudest moment of my life to have been there to see him so warmly and wonderfully applauded and cheered by that remarkable audience.  I know I speak for all of us here when I say it was an honor to be a part of his life.

Chris Palmer: Tudor’s Great Nephew

October 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Susan Bates and Christopher Palmer, Tudor's Great Niece and Nephew, courtesy Chris Palmer

Thanks to the new Tudor website, we learned that the NZ School of Dance was to perform an open rehearsal of Continuo and Lilac Garden in New Zealand. 

 This was a perfect opportunity for my mother, Tudor’s niece Connaught Palmer (nee Cook) to finally see some of the great Tudor works at her back door.  Mum has recently recovered from a hip replacement and the two and a half hour drive from Whangarei to Auckland with an additional one and a half hour flight from Auckland to Wellington is now within her travel capabilities.   (Wellington is NZ’s capital, located at the bottom of the North Island).  Whangarei, where the majority of the Cook relatives reside, is at the very top of the North Island.

Adria Rolnik and Tara McBride from The Tudor Trust kindly provided us additional contact information for the NZ School of Dance (Garry Trinder).  Garry kindly invited us to the performance and provided all the necessary details to help us arrange our short visit to Wellington.

Mum was an aspiring ballerina in her early years and had frequent correspondence

 with her Uncle Antony over the years.  While she was in the city she also planned to visit with her ballet teacher whom resides in the hills overlooking the Wellington Harbour port, Lola Short-Jenkin.  Lola is now 83 years old, and Lola’s ballet teacher also in Wellington is now 93 – but now not teaching!

We were informed Senior Repetiteur Donald Mahler from The Tudor Trust was coming to New Zealand to help the students “learn and understand each of the chosen Tudor ballets.”   This was a real coup for NZ School of Dance to obtain a man of Mahler’s calibre.  We were also not going to miss this fantastic opportunity. 

Garry Trinder and his team at the NZ School of Dance made us feel very welcome when we arrived.  Prior to the

Rehearsing Lilac Garden - NZ School of Dance; L-R, Emmi Coupe, Helio Lima, courtesy Donald Mahler

performance I secretly had concern about the capacity of the NZ School to perform such works.   I knew the complexity of performing Tudor ballets even to an unqualified, unprofessional critic such as myself! I had particular concern with Lilac Garden.  Donald Mahler only had a matter of weeks to get these young students to understand the personalities of the chosen characters let alone master the choreography….however, to great surprise my concern was proved unfounded and the performance of Lilac Garden was superb!

Donald engaged these young artists whom unselfishly committed themselves to devoted learning from a true sculptor and master artist.  He moulded these young respectful bodies and minds in a few short weeks into a truly memorable and yet again emotional performance. Without props or costumes they performed this work to a level of maturity and commitment well advance of their true years. It was obvious to us all they had taken and realised their opportunity to work with a master craftsman on the ballet masterpiece.

The performance of Lilac Garden was simply astounding and made us very proud to be Kiwi’s. Tears welled during and after the performance. We had all witnessed something special this day! Donald and the students and NZ School of Dance can be very satisfied.

Connaught Palmer, Tudor's niece with Donald Mahler, courtesy Donald Mahler

We thanked Donald Mahler, Garry Trinder and the young dancers from the School, and my mother presented the School a framed picture of Antony and her father and mother Bob & Mollie Cook taken in New Zealand. The School planned to place this on their wall in the dance studio. This was a very special day and memory for us all particularly my mother and we thank those involved for making this happen.

Last week we gratefully received the Tudor Centennial book and DVD.   I must confess that I read the book from top to bottom the very next morning! I found the book beautifully presented as one would expect from those representing The Tudor Trust on the Centennial project.  We have learned new information from the book about our Uncle, Great Uncle, and it is certainly the type of book we will pick up and read time and again. I particularly enjoyed the story from Joan Myers Brown “his sense of humour only touched upon his kindness.” I am so very proud that our family member was one to openly reject inequality, challenge perspective and perception, and seek and inspire the thirst for perfection including honesty with oneself. The DVD Centennial Celebration is a fitting tribute to a man who gave so much of himself to the world of ballet and others. 

From my perspective (and I do clearly have natural bias), Tudor’s work is so incredibly beautiful, thought provoking,

Connaught Cook Palmer & her ballet teacher Lola Short-Jenkin in Lola's home, Wellington NZ

 provocative – still necessary in 2010.  It is clearly evident from the Centennial DVD compilation that he lives on in so

In kind Tudor, perhaps underestimated his impact on the world, perhaps it took time for others to “understand” what he was about and what he was creating.  While his mortal form has long since passed I’m confident after watching the DVD his thinking has not!

Guest Blogger: Donald Mahler

December 7, 2009 1 comment

Donald Mahler recently returned from Denver where he staged Antony Tudor’s Echoing of Trumpets for the Colorado Ballet: (Performance/Ticket Info Here!)


Echoing of Trumpets, while ostensively about war, presents a unique vision of the effect of war upon the inhabitants of an occupied village (all women) and the occupiers (all men). We see these people through the extraordinary perception and understanding of Mr. Tudor’s genius. What starts out as a kind of  “cat and mouse” game gradually descends into a much more dangerous and desperate situation. As the ballet unfolds we see the strength of the soldiers become swallowed up by their callous cruelty while those they prey on in the end become in a sense the victors through their living through and overcoming their suffering. One is left with the feeling that life will go on with hope and dignity in spite of, or perhaps because of, their tragedy. It is greatly to Mr. Tudor’s credit that he can take a subject like this and through his deep understanding of human nature, wring the last ounce of emotion out of us and yet we feel somehow uplifted. The situation presented in this work is however, not unique to this village, but is universal. It applies to the larger global village and equally to the past and sadly probably to the present and the future as well.

This is the great difficulty and reward of working on this ballet.  To be able to bring the dancers into Mr. Tudor’s world is an enormous responsibility, by no means easy both for the person staging the work and the dancers themselves. I have to ask them not to be dancers but people, real people. Yes they must use their technique but not let us see it, a real problem! After being told all their careers to make the movements beautiful and even decorative I ask them to forget all that and above all to be totally natural. Walk like they are going to the supermarket and not to take a ballet class. And then there is the problem of “acting”. There is, I believe a profound misunderstanding about Tudor’s wishes on that subject. I have heard it said that he wanted the dancers only to do his choreography and not to “act”. I do not believe this is what he truly wanted. Of course, it is of prime importance to be faithful to the movements he has created, movements which form the strongest outline and basis for the character and dramatic situation. I believe that what he didn’t want was bad acting.  He looked for dynamic portrayals, coming from a true understanding of his work, but with an individual approach according to the individual dancer. Well this is a difficult subject and worthy of a separate discussion.

I haven’t mentioned music. Tudor was the most musical and subtle of choreographers with an enormous knowledge of music and the most amazing choice of and use of it. A great musician once said that the art lies not in the notes but in the spaces between the notes. This could just as well be true of Tudor’s musicality. His use of music is a great difficulty in staging his ballets. The work of the person teaching his ballets is to help the dancers to hear the music not just to listen to it. I have to confess that, especially with this work; I have had to defy the Mantra that Tudor never counted the music. To get the work done when there is never enough time these days and to be able to reach into the depth of the work, I feel that counting is often the only way to help the dancers to be able to hear the music. If I have sinned in this respect well, mea culpa.

The function of the répétiteur is not only to act as the overall director of the many aspects of the piece, but as the re-creator of the entire work. Not only to use the knowledge gained by past interpreters’ to enrich ones own experience but, to seek to go past the past and back to the act of creation itself. A difficult, perhaps impossible task, yet a process, a search which I feel needs to be done. Every rehearsal, every performance I feel should be as though it is being done for the first time yet, bearing in mind all of the past as part and parcel of the present. This is, for me, the way to keeping these works alive and vital.

In an age of worship of the hyper-physical, pyro-technical in dance, I recognize Colorado Ballet’s exceptional dedication to mastering the subtleties of Tudor’s work.  I credit Artistic Director, Gil Boggs, and Ballet Mistress, Sandra Brown, for training a company of unusually musical and perceptive dancers, very quick to hear what Tudor was trying to say and, for creating an environment that fosters theatrical and dramatic truth, unusual for dancers and dance companies of this time. In addition, Gil and Sandy have not only the experience of dancing Tudor’s ballets but also, most importantly, the love for them to make Colorado Ballet perhaps an ideal home for his work. I look forward to returning there in March to complete our work on “Echoing” and to seeing this great work come to life on the stage.

Donald Mahler, December 3, 2009