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THE RETURN by Donald Mahler

March 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Jardin Aux Lilas, 2012 - Ballet du Rhin. L-Alexandre Van Hoorde. R-Christelle Daujean-Molard. Photo: Jean Luc Tanghe

Some twenty years ago my telephone started to ring. This ringing proved to be the harbinger of something which actually changed my life in a very big and entirely unexpected way.

Sally Bliss had a proposal for me. A request by a company in France for Dark Elegies had come in. Because both of the Tudor Trust’s Répétiteurs Sally Wilson and Airi Hynninen were already engaged and unavailable, would I go over and stage it? Well, would is not could!!

I had up until that time not staged any of Tudor’s works. Over the years, I had danced in a number of them – principal roles in Jardin Aux Lilas (Lilac Garden), Offenbach in the Underworld, Echoing of Trumpets and lesser parts in Dark Elegies and Gala Performance. But all this, plus years of watching performances, many with the finest Tudor interpreters, including the great man himself, did not automatically give me the ability to stage these masterpieces. To be an honest player in this time honored profession, I felt that I needed to have a great deal more knowledge of these works than I had. Even to coach these works requires much more than a passing acquaintance with them. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” That is what I believed then and honestly, what I still believe.

Laurence Rollet in Dark Elegies - 1991. Photo: Laurent Phillipe

So, my answer to Sally’s proposal was a strong no. Sally, being the ever positive person she is, wouldn’t take no for an answer and phoned me for a second time with a variation on her theme. If she sent a notator to actually teach the “steps,” would I then agree to go there and coach the ballet? The notator would go there for two weeks and then, after she left I would arrive and continue the work. With much trepidation, knowing that I would be working on my own, I at length, agreed to this proposal.

Claude Agrafiel and Sylvain Boruel in Jardin, 1992. Photo: Laurent Phillipe

This agreement changed the course of my life. First, I set to work with Sally Wilson to try to fill in what I did not know. Then, working with the dancers on what the notator had already set, I had to correct numerous errors and develop the inner meaning and intent of the choreography, a massive task and a responsibility which I did not take lightly! As things turned out, eventually, I wound up staging the entire 5th Song on my own. This process, working together with my own memories and experience, enabled me to start with small baby steps down the road along which I have traveled ever since.

I arrived in the small town of Mulhouse to begin working with Ballet du Rhin on Dark Elegies. I immediately fell in love with the company. They were basically classically trained with a very interesting repertoire. On the same program and rehearsing at the same time as I, was Anna Markard, the daughter of the famous German choreographer, Kurt Joos. She was staging his masterpiece, The Green Table.

What a wonderful experience! Two of the most historic and artistically important dance works in the Dance Repertoire! Both created in the 1930’s in Europe and still pertinent and being performed then and today! The dancers took to Tudor’s work right away and happily, to me as well, with great warmth and friendship. They helped me to enter into the process and overcome my self doubts. There was a great deal of work to be done. My efforts to really learn the ballet proved to be the correct way to go and over the course of time, bore fruit. The period spent with these dancers turned out to be a wonderful learning experience both for me and for them. That my relationship with this company and with Tudor’s ballets would be unexpectedly prolonged was beyond my imagining and yet, due to the success of the performance, I was asked back the next year to stage Jardin Aux Lilas.

Stephanie Madec and Ramy Tadrous in Jardin, 2012. Photo: Jean Luc Tanghe

The return to a company is always a much sought after experience for me. I will have become familiar with the dancers and they will have gotten to know me. More importantly, they will have become familiar with what Tudor’s work is about and with the qualities he asks for. Jardin is however, very different from Dark Elegies. The ability to become a dancer-actor was a big transition for them. The dancers were also puzzled by the music. Its lush romanticism was not at all like the stark music of Mahler. Some time after we had been working on Jardin, one of the dancers told me that, when they first heard the Chausson they hated it. But, after learning the choreography they began to appreciate and even love the music and that was so because of the ballet!

Eventually all this came to an end. Friendly relations became lovely memories. Our lives drifted, as is only natural, apart. Yet, these two productions with Ballet du Rhin were terribly important for me – the start of a wonderful voyage of discovery.

Now, after 20 years of working on Tudor’s works with companies around the world and feeling pretty worn out at that, in a repeat of the past, the phone rang. There was Sally’s voice on the other end. She said that a company in France wanted to do Jardin Aux Lilas and had asked for me to stage it. Which company? Ballet du Rhin! Twenty years later and a return to the place where all this began! How amazing!

L-R - Laurence Rollet, Didier Merle, Donald Mahler, Claude Agrafiel - 2012

L-R - Laurence Rollet, Didier Merle, Donald Mahler, Claude Agrafiel - 2012

In the years which had passed, much of Mulhouse had changed. And yet much had not. Still there were the wonderful old buildings. Still there was the town square with its Cathedral. Now all was bustling with Christmas decorations. Many stalls had been erected with things to eat. Crepes!! Things to drink and lots of noise. Even a giant Ferris wheel. All very reminiscent of the fair in Petrouchka. I set out to find the Theater where the studios are located. Unbelievably, my feet seemed to know where to go and without any difficulty, there I was.

Inside, I found, standing in the office, old friends from my first time with the company. Claude Agrafiel who had danced Caroline and the First Song in Dark Elegies and who is now Ballet Mistress, and Didier Merle who was Ballet Master then and who is Ballet Master now and with whom I was slated to work once again on Jardin. With joy we immediately recognized each other after all these years! During the time I was in Mulhouse, a number of the dancers who worked with me in my first time with Ballet de Ruin also came by to visit. It was a great pleasure to see them.

The company now is much the same as before. A different Director, Bertrand d’At, has brought in a more or less contemporary repertoire but with strictly classical training. A strong sense of musicality and very fluid movement was very much in evidence. I was incredibly impressed by their work ethic. I watched many rehearsals and never saw anyone mark or give less than 100% of themselves – and all in a happy atmosphere! Even with me!

Rehearsals were interrupted by an 11-day Christmas and New Year’s vacation. When we all returned I found them in the studio before rehearsals started, going over, on their own, what we had done before the holidays and helping each other to work things out!

Mahler sets Lilac Garden for Ballet du Rhin, 2012. Photo - Jean Luc Tanghe

Donald Mahler sets Lilac Garden for Ballet du Rhin, 2012. Photo: Jean Luc Tanghe

I was so thankful for their patience with me. My weird sense of humor and the geriatric nature of my “demonstrating” must have been more than they bargained for! I am grateful also to Didier for his help and friendship. What a lovely way to work! I also want to express my deep gratitude to Bertrand for his support and for sharing so much of his time.

Surely there must have been conflicts there. All companies have them. It is just that I didn’t ever see evidence of them during rehearsals. I was enormously impressed and moved by their warmth and openness with me.

These qualities were strongly in evidence by the way they interacted with their children. Yes, I said children. There are many couples in the company, both married and otherwise. Parents to a raft of children! The loving and caring way they were with them was indicative of their qualities as artists. I cannot find the words to express how impressed I was by the maturity of these dancers, so well developed as people in their attitude towards life and towards each other. Mr. Tudor, who looked for dancers to be people rather than dancers, would have loved this company – but not more than I do.

Sadly, this is to be Bertrand’s last season. A new Artistic Director has been appointed to take over the leadership from him. I wish for him, and the company, continued success and happiness in the future.

VIEW SLIDESHOW OF ADDITIONAL COMPANY PHOTOS BELOW…

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Lilac Garden Workshop at Principia College by John Gardner and Amanda McKerrow

January 18, 2011 Leave a comment

John Gardner at Principia College - Tudor Workshop

This year we spent our holiday season in a quite unique and stimulating way. The day after Christmas we traveled to Principia College for a week long Tudor workshop that was to serve as a pilot program for the official launch of the Antony Tudor curriculum that will take place in June 2011 in Kansas City, Missouri.

The idea for the workshop was put forward to Amanda Mckerrow by the Dance Department Chair at Principia College, Hilary Harper Wlicoxen. Principia had done Little Improvisations a year earlier with much success, and Hilary was hopeful that they could follow up with another Tudor piece. This was to prove challenging due to many factors, most importantly the lack of male dancers. Hilary thought that a good solution would be to excerpt a solo from one of the Tudor ballets. She had a lovely dancer at Principia by the name of Kanoe Wagner who had performed Little Improvisations. Hilary thought Kanoe would make a lovely Caroline from Lilac Garden, and Amanda suggested that the solo she dances to the violin cadenza would be a good choice. Amanda shared this idea with Sally Bliss, and she too agreed that it was right for Kanoe, and it was a wonderful opportunity to bring Tudor back to Principia. However, there were some concerns. One of them being; how does one excerpt a character from a story, and give it the full depth of understanding it requires, if one has never performed the work, or been involved in the process of character development with the choreographer or the cast as a whole? This question opened up much discussion, which led to the idea of a one week Lilac Garden workshop at Principia College. It was important for us to allow this workshop to develop as naturally as possible, and that would mean tailoring some of the specifics to fit the given situation. First of all, the only time we were all available was the week between Christmas and New Years day. While this wasn’t the most ideal time, Hilary thought we could find enough students if she opened it up to community. As it turned out we had fifteen dancers attend, four of them being men, who we were delighted to have, and their contribution was invaluable. The workshop was to include a two hour ballet technique class each day given by John Gardner. Amanda would then work on setting Caroline’s solo and other scenes that are vital to her characterization and the story. The other interdisciplinary classes, Music with Jim Hegarty and Literature with Heidi Snow, added another dimension to the experience, and were certainly informative and helpful. It was wonderful for the students to hear about Trude de Garmo Harper’s personal experiences with Mr. Tudor, which helped bring the man to life. However, it was Meg Eginton’s acting for the dancer classes that really accelerated their character development and enhanced the entire process. Meg attended all of the Lilac Garden rehearsals and designed her classes to directly support what was being done in the studio.

 We have always enjoyed working with college and university dancers. Their minds are so focused on learning and they are completely engaged in every aspect of the process. This workshop at Principia was no different in that respect .The dancers all threw themselves into the work with a refreshing curiosity that gained momentum as the week progressed. It was this curiosity of mind that was essential to the success of this workshop in an educational sense, and we found that the more the dancers learned, the more hungry they became to express themselves artistically. We are all thrilled with the outcome of this workshop and truly believe that the Tudor curriculum has the potential to play a most valuable and important role in higher education by providing a tool for the understanding of how to clearly inhabit a given character through dance, and also by teaching the value of being sensitive and mindful of our artistic selves as interpreters and creators of art in the highest. This is the legacy of Tudor, and its continuance insures the integrity and inspiration for the future generations of dancers and choreographers who will explore and carry this art form forward.

We spent time with and met some wonderful and lovely people along the way, and we are thankful for that. We want to especially thank Hilary and Sally for their efforts in making this workshop possible. We want to thank everyone who helped bring this endeavor to life, and that joyfully includes the dancers!

John & Amanda

Categories: Repetiteur

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.

Donald Mahler: Tudor’s Humanity

March 15, 2010 1 comment

Having recently returned from Butler University where I staged Dark Elegies and having now a short breather before heading out again, I have been thinking a great deal about what Mr. Tudor’s works mean to me and what I have experienced working on them with so many of today’s dancers.

It has been tremendously moving and meaningful for me to see and feel how these great works have touched their lives. How they are not only inspired to reach higher levels of artistry but how their hearts and indeed the hearts of the audiences are so moved by Tudor’s humanity and compassionate understanding. What other choreographer has been able to shake us up and bring us to such inexplicable tears of sorrow and tears of joy?

In rehearsals I often find myself unable to speak just from watching his marvelous works unfold. Who could fail to be moved deeply, for example, by the Pas de Deux in Dark Elegies or the final duo in Pillar of Fire, with its expression of love and compassion? I remember once when having completed Echoing of Trumpets, we had the first run through in the studio. As the last note of music faded to silence, everyone in the room – the dancers, ballet mistress, artistic director, management and I – were in tears! Why? Because Mr. Tudor understood people so well and populated his works not with dancers but with real living breathing people, whose experiences evoke and mirror those of the participants on both sides of the footlights.

So, just as with the students at Butler University, dancers come to realize that there is more, much more to dance than tendus and plies; more than circus tricks and certainly more than ego. They are lifted up by Mr. Tudor to a new and I hope infinitely better understanding of themselves and of our wonderful art form.

Categories: Repetiteur

Tudor and Education: A Perfect Match

January 13, 2010 2 comments

by Sally Brayley Bliss

There is a small village on the east side of the Mississippi River in Illinois named Elsah. Not just beautiful and historical, it is also the home of Principia, a small liberal arts college for Christian Scientists. When I was Director of the Joffrey II Dancers 1969 thru 1986, on one of our many bus tours, we of course played St. Louis and we had many run outs. One time, thanks to our Iowa friend, John Fitzpatrick, we performed at Principia College. I will always remember my experience with the dynamic college in this quaint little town.

My point is that Principia has a dance program; a good one. The Dance Department Chair, Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen, happens to be a huge Tudor fan; not only that, but her mother studied with Tudor in New York many years ago. The ballet world is at once expansive and small. You just never know who you will meet and where.

After she introduced herself a year ago, I arranged for her program to learn and perform Little Improvisations. Amanda McKerrow was the ideal répétiteur to stage it for them. Amanda, Hilary, the entire dance program, production staff, filmmakers and I all pitched in. This residency became a huge event and a learning experience for all of us. Most importantly, the process pushed me into deep thought. Having worked by that time with many university and college dance departments, I realized Tudor’s choreography (not all, but some of his works) are perfect for university dance programs. His choreography is so understood by the students, who not only enjoy but are intellectually stimulated by the works of Tudor. Dance departments all over are growing and rapidly developing their abilities to undertake new challenges. I had the pleasure of working with Juilliard College, Duke, Stanford, and Washington Universities, while the Tudor Trust répétiteurs have worked with so many more. Hence, it led me to decide the time was right to develop a Tudor Syllabus that will enhance and enrich already strong programs like Principia, while opening opportunities for many others. I realize that this has never been done, but the challenge will be an exhilarating one. Tudor was always an educator and this fit is a natural one.

I have delegated a group of university dance faculty, led by répétiteurs James Jordan and Amanda McKerrow to develop a Tudor Syllabus. They will be working closely with Kristine Elliot, Lance Westergard, and the aforementioned Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen. I’m sure there will be more on board as we develop our plan and move ahead. Hilary will guide us as we lay the foundation for all that is necessary to create a university dance syllabus that will be approved by the system.

This is just the beginning. We have a lot of work to do and we need your help. The Trust is very interested in your best ideas for developing something very new and exciting. This is the future, not only for Tudor, but for all of dance.

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