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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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Paula Weber, CORPS de Ballet President on Tudor Curriculum

June 14, 2011 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kathleen Moore-Tovar: Antony Tudor Reflections

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Kathleen Moore-Tovar (Photo by Valerie Ford)

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

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

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

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

Nancy Zeckendorf: Eulogy For Antony Tudor, 1987

November 18, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Palmer: Tudor’s Great Nephew

October 19, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sally Brayley Bliss: State of the Trust

July 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Sally Brayley Bliss Accepting Visionary Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award

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

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

COCA Dancers in Little Improvisations. Photo by Cyndy Maasen

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

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

COCA Dancers in Little Improvisations. Photo by Cyndy Maasen

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

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

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

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

Sally Brayley Bliss