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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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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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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.

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.