Charlotte Kasner listens in and reflects on a recent conversation hosted by New York Theatre Ballet.
He has been called ‘The Royal Ballet’s forgotten genius’. One of Britain’s finest choreographers, Antony Tudor’s work rarely appears on UK stages. That he moved to New York in the late 1930s while still only in his late 20s didn’t help, but one wonders why he fell so out of favour. True, his ballets are looked on as difficult, and with some trepidation, but they certainly also have depth.
Jane Pritchard, curator of dance for the V&A in London, opened proceedings with a few slides depicting early performances and reminded us that the Mercury Theatre, where many of Tudor’s early works were presented, was tiny. Among several photographs Pritchard showed of his early works, one demonstrated clearly how just nine dancers filled the stage with the audience in close proximity.
Tudor thus choreographed in a milieu that left no room for hiding although he himself preferred to hide behind characters with heavy make-up and costume. He also worked in the small Trocedero and the Duchess, one of the smallest West End theatres, but also at Covent Garden staging opera ballets.
Tudor’s first work was Cross Gartered. Created in 1931, it referenced Twelfth Night and reflected Tudor’s perennial interest in drama. He was influenced also by Fokine who was insistent in matching the choreography to the subject. John Gardner of the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust later remarked that it would be possible to stage whole evenings of Tudor works and not realise that they were by the same choreographer.
Although Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden, 1936) was danced by then then Ballet Rambert until the 1960s, revivals of his works have been sporadic and not always supported by sufficient time to rehearse or by dancers who know the works.
Amanda McKerrow, former American Ballet Theatre principal and trustee at the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, and Gardner feel that, although a limited amount of work is still danced in the US by professional companies, notably NY Theatre Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, his choreography remains very relevant, not least because he was interested in psychology which helps the dancer to become more sensitive. Dancer and associate artistic director of NY Theatre Ballet, Elena Zahlmann, concurred.
Tudor taught practice and in theory in companies but also at Morley College then later at Julliard after he moved to New York. Today, universities and colleges play an important role in keeping his works alive. McKerrow and Gardner explained how they are still staging Tudor ballets in colleges as well as with professional companies, either in full or excerpts and enabling performance to be combined with lectures. Both noted how universities proved very keen to dance his ballets and the study aspect followed as demand increased.
Gardener recalls taking class with Tudor, so can pass on some things that he learned from the horse’s mouth. They agreed that students are also curious about Tudor as a person, and they recognise that his movement vocabulary is different from much that they know. This enables an all-round exploration that is not usually possible in professional companies.
Zahlmann said that she finds that every work, however different has intention with no room for improvisation. Each step is purposeful and this approach affects other work.
The panel noted that Tudor worked as much with the corps as he did with the principals. The depth of thought was illustrated by his giving names and personalities to all the characters in Lilac Garden, even thought that did not carry through to the final performance. He also made dancers work in an understated way which makes the emotions much more powerful. The character was encapsulated in the choreography.
Tudor is rarely performed in Britain and not that often in major companies across the world, although the recently retired Assistant Artistic Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, Marion Tait, recently described Hagar in his Pillar of Fire as one of the greatest roles she performed.
Pritchard suggested that the Linbury Theatre at The Royal Opera House would be a suitable venue for the more intimate style of his choreography but that today’s priority appears to be to always look for new work. Rambert, once a home for home for his choreography, has long gone in a different direction and is less interested in the ‘back catalogue’.
There was comment that Tudor’s style and the Cecchetti influence are rarely taught today because of the emphasis on technique at the expense of artistry and an all-round understanding of performance. Companies are rarely able to provide sufficient time for dancers to learn works given that they have no experience of the style. Tudor used to start rehearsals with a full run!
Despite that, Gardner explained that The Tudor Trust, which owns sets and costumes,is working hard to facilitate reconstructions and performances. Workshops at universities enable the work of reconstruction to be undertaken which then makes it financially viable for professional companies to consider mounting productions and mitigates the cost of hiring and shipping costumes and sets between companies, he said.
For many, especially in Britain, Tudor remains a choreographer largely forgotten, however. The passion and commitment of those who have a direct connection with him is vital in keeping his work alive and, perhaps in time, bringing it back to these shores. Maybe dance will eventually come full circle and turn its back on the drive for novelty and athleticism to realise that there is much that could be lost if the works of Tudor and his contemporaries are allowed to disappear.
Between the Acts: Antony Tudor can be watched on New York Theatre Ballet’s Vimeo channel.
For more about Antony Tudor, the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust website www.antonytudor.org is a super repository of information.