A Personal Memory
To say that Hugh Laing was unique as a dancer would be a considerable understatement. No one performed as he did. The only other dancer of his generation who had the same impact on the stage as he---was Leonide Massine.
He had the same intensity and dynamism. As the Gypsy Boy in "Aleko" he was favorably compared to Massine and it was thought that he would be well suited to other Massine roles, i.e., the Young Musician in "Symphonie Fantastique" or as the Hussar in "Le Beau Danube".
But what of his technical side?
This is how Leon Danielian assessed him:
"Here was someone touted as a premier dancer. Yet he had
no elevation, no pirouettes, no plie, and could only rise to
half toe. He was brittle. But he was brilliant on the stage.
He understood every gesture and could magnify it so that
the audiences sitting high in the galleries got the full power."
Danielian goes on to say that nothing attests to Tudor's brilliance more than his ability to choreograph around Hugh's deficiencies. Implying, perhaps, that he could dance for no other choreographer?
Well, not quite. He did many non-Tudor ballets. He portrayed Petrouchka, was a droll Husband in deMille's "Tally-Ho", a Spanish lover in Fokine's "Bluebeard", the Grandfather in "Peter and the Wolf", Robbins "Facsimilie", and one performance I missed but badly wanted to see, his Albrecht to Tamara Toumanova's Giselle. I missed that performance because I was a high school student at the time, it was a school day, and I had exams the next day and my family put their 'foot down' and I could not leave the house. I never studied that night, though. At 8:30 (the starting time then) I lay down on my bed and for the next two hours envisioned what was happening on the stage of the old 'Met". A friend of mine took a photograph of him taking a bow in front of the gold curtain holding one long stemmed red rose. I believe it was the only time he danced the role, I could never find a reference to it anywhere. To this day I wonder how he got through the technical demands---but oh!, his interpretation must have been beautiful. When necessary he could be appealingly tender.
John Martin (NYTimes) said his Petrouchka "was a figure of essentially tragic dignity...giving a lift to the tone of the work as a whole and endowing the ending particularly with the significance of catastrophe."
His most famous role, undoubtedly, is the Young Man in "Pillar of Fire". His portrayal of the Young Man has often been described as vulgar, but I never thought so. Conceited, self-centered, egotistical--oh yes--in abundance, but his elegance never left him even when he was playing a degenerate heel. (With his successors, the Young Man has become coarse and common)
Sono Osato, in writing of Laing's famous 'walk' after leaving Hagar prostrate on the ground said, "His walk alone spoke volumes, expressing at once his indifference to her shame and a passion devoid of tenderness." I can recall the Young Man's first encounter with Hagar----as he walks across the stage at a normal gait, he pauses ever so briefly, and with his feet planted firmly on the ground does a step which I can only describe as a ronde de jambe of the left knee while looking slightly over his left shoulder at Hagar---subtle and erotic.
In an interview with Selma Jeanne Cohen he said:
"He (Tudor) never set my final walk--now a quite famous
one--in "Pillar of Fire". I knew there had to be something
vulgar and nasty in it, and something of the arrogance of a
strutting sailor. So I just walked with hips tight and
shoulders up, and Tudor said it was just right."
Quite a contrast was his role in "Undertow" as the psychotic Transgressor. He
looked small and thin and appeared to be a shy and gentle adolescent. Fernau Hall said: "This little boy should look like a 'Picasso Blue Period Boy'---skinny and sensitive, bedraggled and unwanted." This is the effect Laing achieved; and wisely did not try to gain sympathy for the character which would not be too welcome for a homicidal maniac. The ballet was not well received---most audiences found it to be too obscure. But the performances of Laing, Alicia Alonso and Nana Gollner made it memorable. (Nana Gollner was the big surprise. She had the glamour, beauty and innate sexiness of a Hollywood star. I would think Tudor wanted her for the part of Medusa, over Nora Kaye, because of these attributes. Later Diana Adams danced the part but was not suited to the role; her beauty was soft and lady-like.)
Laing's technique, or lack of it, was never mentioned in any review I have come across---the reviews spoke of his "Superb pantomimic dancing which has given distinction to every Tudor work" (George Amberg) Donna Perlmutter wrote "....throughout his two decades on stage and since, no one, according to consensus, has ever matched his theatrical splendor in the Tudor ballets."
In the summer of 1950 Ballet Theatre visited London without Hugh Laing, and CWBeaumont, Himself, wrote at the time:
"The dancer one misses is Hugh Laing, because no one knows
Tudor's conception of ballet better than he does, since the
principal roles of so many of that choreographer's works have
been worked out upon and created by him. I think it would be
generally agreed by all who saw Laing in these roles, that he is
unmatchable as Romeo and as the Young Man in 'Pillar of Fire'"
Edwin Denby almost touched on his technique:
"Hugh Laing is, of course, among the men the special star of
the Company, and, in his style, in a class by himself. His
exactness of gesture, his fine intellectual fervor, and his
almost Sinatralike suggestion have been as compelling as
ever,---and his balance has improved."
"His balance has improved"...??...it comes across as an afterthought. It seems to me that Denby would have liked to say more about his technique, but left well enough alone. Perhaps it was like the way the White House Press Corps refrained from writing of John F. Kennedy's peccadillos; concentrating instead on the essence of the man---and in this case, the dancer.
One of my fondest memories of Hugh Laing is the time he came to talk to our ballet group--'Balletiana'. This was a group formed by balletomanes as a way of staying in touch in between the ballet seasons. (This is what we did before the Internet). We met twice a month in a rented studio in Carnegie Hall, and had many notable guests, among whom were Edwin Denby, Walter Terry, Anatole Chujoy, Alexandra Danilova, Frederic Franklin, Ruthanna Boris, Harold Lang, Nana Gollner and many more. One of our most memorable and hilarious guests was Hugh Laing. Our Moderator, R.E. was an attractive blonde in her late 20's; more worldly and sophisticated than the rest of us. She and Laing sat on two chairs facing the group, with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses next to her on the floor.
In between the questioning she plied him (and herself) with drinks. She would bat her eyelashes at him, and he mustered up his considerable charm. By the end of the session they were both delightfully potted. He came back for a second visit.