Posted 13 May 2002 - 10:29 PM
In April of 1998 we had an all-Tudor program here in Milwaukee. It was a profound experience for me. I think the article I wrote about that performance gets at Tudor's importance, but also why he's not often seen any more. Tudor's is a sensibility we need right now, mostly because we don't even realize how much we need it any more. It's too late for me to translate that into English, sorry. FWIW here's the piece I did.
There is a truth within you and in your life that will sustain you. You are here to find it and share it.
That is the sort of thing you might hear at an especially enlightened therapy session or church. It is a rare sort of insight to encounter in a ballet, despite the fact that dance has been, since the dawn of time, a means of discovering and expressing personal truth. The four Antony Tudor ballets performed by the Milwaukee Ballet this week are distinctive in many ways, but unique in the manner in which they reach back to that prehistoric function of music and movement and apply it to our lives today.
Tudor was an English choreographer born in 1908. He produced ballets in London in the Ď30s under circumstances that could be described as challenging, if not crude. In 1939 he moved to the U.S. to join the American Ballet Theater in its first season and remained there until his death in 1987. He is revered for developing an unprecedented psychological, dramatic, depth in his dancers, both in rehearsal and in performance.
"This is not a normal ballet performance," said Basil Thompson, artistic director of the Milwaukee Ballet. That is unfortunate. Ballet in the U.S. has moved away from drama, to spectacle and athleticism. The situation is partly a vestige of dance as an imperial amusement and partly a marketing attempt to draw the circus crowd. Meanwhile we are entertained into a stupor while we are starved for involvement and meaning.
We have a singular opportunity this week to enjoy an technically gifted dance company, a live orchestra playing great music, and dramatic choreography presented by individuals well-versed in the Tudor tradition. Sallie Wilson and Donald Mahler, who are setting the ballets, along with Thompson and balletmistress Fiona Fuerstner, comprise as knowledgeable a convocation of experience with these dances as you are ever likely to see again.
You wonít need an esoteric background or Cliffís notes to be delighted by this performance, either. Continuo is a compact celebration of beauty, The Judgement of Paris an essay on decadence' Dark Elegies is about grief, and Gala performance satirizes celebrity and elitism. They are all visually delightful, technically rich, brilliantly musical, and dramatic.
Continuo is the first on the program although Tudor created it 30 years after the other three. He choreographed this short piece in 1971 as an exercise for his students at Julliard shortly before his retirement from that institution. The music is Pachelbelís lyrical "Canon in D".
The term "continuo" is a contraction of basso continuo, in which a repeated bass melody is echoed and filled by the other instruments. Itís a statement of how Tudor felt toward his dancers; his steady influence providing the foundation for their dance. The music and dance are fluid yet disciplined, baroque and Spartan, complex but pure, fleeting and eternal.
This is the sort of paradox that Tudor left us. The attention to detail and process that makes them difficult to re-create is exactly what makes them important and enduring. He had a reputation for a caustic wit and consistently demanded more from his people than they thought they could produce. Those who stayed with him sensed that the demands were not made to demean them, though, but to make them grow despite ambiguity and stress.
The Judgement of Paris sets the Greek myth in a French dive. Three girls compete for the attention of a customer who proceeds to drink himself into unconsciousness. The music is from Kurt Weillís Threepenny Opera and the look is right out of Toulouse-Lautrec.
"This looks like the easiest one but itís the hardest, because they have to find their characters," Sallie Wilson said. Imagine what a stretch it is for a dancer who has spent years perfecting every detail of her idealized image to play a fallen woman, who in turn represents a Greek goddess. The festive, sad music and a plot that is a total travesty of the conventions of courtly love complete the ironic tension.
Dark Elegies was created in 1917. It is about a community responding, individually and together, to the deaths of their children. The music is "Kindertotenlieder (Dead Childrenís Songs)", written by Gustav Mahler to five poems by Friedrich Ruckert. The masterful use of gesture, stillness, and motion, communion and isolation, light and dark, a building storm followed by a resolving calm, make this a monumental statement. The whole effect is never one of contorted anguish or even of sadness, but of tragedy and dignity.
Ballet is a mythic narrative. Itís the stories your favorite grandparent told you. It is a suspension of rational thought, where any transformation is possible but the truths are eternal. Myth is our guide to times of rapid change. Thatís why Diaghilev could dazzle the most sophisticated audiences in the world with simple fairy tales in the days before World War I. Tudorís approach is different, but the goal is the same. Elegies is a story of the human spirit surviving the most excruciating of experiences in a time when we used compassion instead of Prozac. Empires have been built and crushed to dust since 1937, but this ballet-nothing more than a pattern of bodily movements and a series of sounds- endures.
In Gala Performance three great ballerinas - French, Italian, and Russian - have come to a small theater to perform. This piece can be read as a living treatise on the dance traditions (and eccentricities) of these three countries. It is also a richly humorous satire where Tudor warns us about taking ourselves too seriously and not taking art seriously enough. Finally it is an engaging play-within-a-play where even the audience has a role; we play the audience of 100 years ago.
Part of the challenge of writing about Tudorís ballets is that he never told anyone what to think. he would be very specific about the details, steps, and gestures, but what everything meant was up to you. Ultimately this gives the work a heightened realism, a carefully prepared feeling of natural randomness. It is a still pond in which you can see both the beauty and the shortcomings of the world, and your own reflection.