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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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