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Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies

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Last night I attended a lecture at Barnard College (my alma mater) called Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies: Bringing a Classic to Life. Panelists included Donald Mahler, a choreographer and Tudor specialist who worked with Margaret Craske and knew Tudor during Tudor's time with the MET; Carla Maxwell, artistic director of the Limon Dance Company; Roxane D'Orleans-Juste and Jonathan Reidel, dancers in the Limon Company; and Elizabeth Sawyer, a composer and Tudor accompanist at both the MET and Julliard, who knew Tudor since 1937.

The panelists discussed Tudor's long association with Ballet Theatre/ABT where many of his works were created and performed, but from the mid-1970's forward, Barishnikov and others in charge of the repertory did not value (or understand)Tudor's works which were rarely or only grudgingly performed. In the late 1990's, Maxwell approached Sally Bayley Bliss, who is the Tudor trustee, and asked for the chance to have the Limon company dance Dark Elegies (choreographed to Mahler's Kindertotenlieder), and Bliss agreed.

In reconstructing the performance, there were several modifications. In the original, three of the principal girls danced on pointe for emphasis at highly emotional points. (Awful pun.) The Limon dancers are not trained for pointe work, so that was eliminated. The women were reduced from eight to seven. Lighting was used in place of decor (I don't remember the decor from the ABT production so I can't comment.) Sally Wilson (formerly of ABT and considered one of the best Tudor dancers of her - or any- generation) approved of the changes, saying Tudor would have wanted it danced as naturally as possible. The Limon Company spent more time and care than many companies would in staging the ballet - rehearsing for more than a month, and continuing to work on it each time it is performed.

There was a lot of discussion of what Tudor looked for in dancers. The consensus was that he would have hated the current emphasis on technical perfection. Sawyer quoted him as saying at one point :"F*** the steps, just get the quality." Mahler, too, emphasized that Tudor wanted dancers to look like real people, not dancers. He was interested in body language and genuine interaction among dancers on stage. Mahler laughingly admitted that when Tudor choreographed Echo of Trumpets, for example, he chose the worst male dancers as soldiers because he wanted them to be soldier-like not dancer-like. Mahler described some of Tudor's exercises in rehearsal, like sitting around in a circle, making eye contact and trying to communicate totally non-verbally. At one point, he instructed the male dancers in class to be young girls in love, and none of them could manage it. Craske piped up""That's the problem with you boys. You are afraid to make fools of yourselves."

In Dark Elegies, a ballet about grief, Tudor encouraged the dancers to "get rid of themselves," to express grief with an inward, almost meditative quality and no histrionics. Sawyer was particularly eloquent describing Tudor's musicality. Tudor loved Mahler, and since he could read music and play the piano, he spent a long time with a piano/vocal score, learning every nuance before he began to actually work with dancers. She said that Tudor had been tremendously influenced by Massine's use of symphonic music as ballet music. Although the words of the songs he used in Elegies deal with the death of children, Tudor did not want the grief to be that specific. It was the universality that he wanted expressed.

There were lighter moments discussing the relationship between Tudor and Jose Limon, who taught at Julliard at the same time. The panelists noted, for example, that each of them referred to Limon as "Jose" but to Tudor as "Tudor" or "Mr. Tudor!" Maxwell quoted Tudor as saying to Limon, "Jose [with the hard J!], you have taken everything we've told them not to do in ballet and turned it into a technique."

The lecture concluded with a 1999 videotape of the Jose Limon Company performing Dark Elegies at the Joyce Theater. The tape quality was not particularly good, but the power of the performance still came through clearly.

The next and final lecture in this series this year is Monday, April 7, at 7:30 in the Held Lecture Hall, Room 304, Barnard Hall, Barnard College, Broadway at 117th Street. It is free and no tickets are required. The subject is The Critic's Mind, with panelists Joan Acocella, Jack Anderson and Elizabeth Zimmer, dance critics for various NYC publications.

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Sounds like a fabulous series....

Wish I could come. The next one sounds excellent. Anyone nearby should try to make it.

I have seen both the San Francisco Ballet and the Limon company perform Dark Elegies, and to my mind, the Limon company was superior in feeling -- though there WAS one dancer with SFB, Grace Maduell, I will never forget how powerful and moving she was in 'mir ist's, sie sind nur aufgegangen" (the song: it translates as "it's like they just went outside for a moment" -- the point being they aren't coming back) -- she was the ONLY one who had the feeling, which ALL the Limon dancers had, esp. the women, of powerfully contained, but very active grief.... I was very curious how it would look without pointe shoes, and was actually startled by the power of the women's feet-- in glissades, jetes, every jump, their feet were like Cecchetti's -- incredibly strong, like daggers -- and in pas de bourree, their 3/4-pointe was so strong it felt the same, like knives.... incisive

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Another great reason to live in New York--lots of free stuff you can't get in the provinces for a prince's ransom. What a great series. I would think that Joan Acocella and other critics will get a good size audience.

We saw the Limon troupe dance "Dark Elegies" several years ago and it looked as if it had been made for them. The "Kindertotenlieder" is such a complete work of art in itself that I was at first worried that using it with dance would detract from the impact both of the songs and of the dancing. We had seen it only once before as part of an evening by a regional French company, the Le Ballet du Capitole of Toulouse. It wasn't the best way to see it for the first time, although the French company (on pointe) carried it off respectably.

The Limon presentation, though, was electric. It was obvious that they had really internalized both the music and the movement so that technique became secondary. Tudor's understanding of Mahler's music must have been profound. Working through the score at the piano, as Mary J has reported, obviously worked for him.

I would think that Tudor had a conception of what he wanted to accomplish, although probably not specifically how to accomplish it, before he began work with the score.

Was there any discussion of how Tudor worked in this case--did he leave notes, for example, or have discussions with people who recalled them? One would really love to know if he was visualizing certain movements and series of movement as he worked through the score or whether he tried to learn the music from the inside out and then let it help to inspire his choreogaphy. Or if he did something else altoghether.

Thanks for the report on a very intriguing lecture--it certainly a distiguised panel.

I have been listening to Janet Baker with Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra do "Kindertotenlieder" while typing this--she is another artist who really understood this work.

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Kind of a side note, Ed, but though Janet Baker is a great interpreter of these songs, if you can find a recording of Kathleen Ferrier singing them, you've GOT to hear that... she could make Herbert von Karajan and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf cry......

And while we're at it, Mahler succeeded in setting some VERY great poems, by Friedrich Ruckert, which needed no musical accompaniment to be complete, with incredible sensitivity -- he did another cycle of Ruckert poems, maybe even more beautiful....

Mahler was one of 14 children, 8 of whom died.... and Tudor managed to choreograph something that fits BOTH....

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And a note on the Toulouse company:

I believe that although Ed has said that the company acquitted itself "respectably", a lot would have to depend on Nanette Glushak as the company's director. She's a strikingly attractive and startlingly brilliant woman, and very classy, but her basic language is Classic Balanchine (nothing can convince me to use the word "old" in connection with Ms. Glushak!). Even though she worked with Tudor at ABT, and even, I think NYCB (She Wore Perfume in "Dim Lustre?"), I think her basic æsthetic is Balanchine, and at that, she is matched by only a few. Her braininess, good taste and sensibility would lead her to mount quite adequate productions of Tudor, but I think there was a slight disconnect there that might lead to less success than with Balanchine works or other neo-classics - I would love to see Toulouse do some Ashton!:)

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"Dark elegies" is a work I'd really like to see today- unfortunately, the only French companies which have it in their repertories are the POB and the Ballet de Toulouse, and they haven't danced it for while... And the Limon company never tours to France :)

Mel, if I remember correctly, the ballet de Toulouse danced Ashton's "Illuminations" a few seasons ago, I really regretted not being able to go there and see it (and indeed it's really striking to see the good work that Nanette Glushak has done there in a few years... In the last few seasons, I've noticed that the repertory became less original and included more home productions of full-length classics, but it's probably for financial reasons...)

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Dark Elegies was (I think) made for Rambert when they were Ballet Rambert (rather than Rambert Dance Company as they are now).

They did perform this in about 2000 (may be a couple of years out here) when they had a season at the Coliseum in London, and I remember seeing it then. But they haven't performed it since, which is a pity. I think there was some controversy about the version they performed. There is a note in one of the books about Rambert (one produced to commemorate their 70th year, which contains details of all their repertory over time) that the version they performed was one which had been passed down within the company, but that this is not necessarily the same as the version the choreographer later felt happy with. I think the text indicated that they had an agreement with the estate that they would not perform 'their' version more often than a specified period - maybe it was five years ? If anyone's interested I will look up the details, I don't have the volume to hand.

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To everyone who replied to my posting, enormous thanks! I love BA because I always learn so much from the responses -

Paul, I think the song you mentioned, "mir ist's, ..." is the high point of Elegies for me. If I am not mistaken, there is a movement by the female soloist where she bends forward at the waist, and leans her hand on her cheek and rests her elbow on the other arm, held horizontally (it is so awkward to describe a simple movement!). One of the panelists explained that that was a mother leaning out of a half open Dutch door, as though looking for her children at play. The movement only occurs two, at most three, times, and every time I found myself gasping. And you're right about the feet - I didn't miss the tapering of pointe shoes at all because their feet were so strong and lovely. And the other Mahler song cycle - didn't Eliot Feld choreograph them as "At Midnight"? I loved that ballet (many people didn't, which puzzles me) and thought Bruce Marks was fabulous in it - and he was originally modern dance trained.

Ed, there was a question from the audience about how Tudor worked, and the answer was kind of ambiguous. Although he internalized the music (Sawyer - who was his accompanist and was there through virtually all of his creative years - pointed out that he was especially sensitive to tonalities and key transitions), he didn't choreograph "on" the music, so he didn't visualize anything specific before going to the studio to work with the dancers. Apparently this could lead to rehearsals where literally nothing happened because Tudor didn't come with any preconceptions. But obviously it all worked out right in the end, if Dark Elegies is any indication. (And since Lilac Garden and Pillar of Fire are IMO truly masterpieces, Tudor eventually got where he wanted to be!)

Lynette, I think you are right about Dark Elegies being made for Ballet Rambert, although I don't know Tudor's life in enough detail to be sure. Tudor was trained by and danced with Marie Rambert, but joined Ballet Theater for its first season in 1940. Sawyer (who was working with Tudor beginning in 1937) told a story about Dark Elegies being performed at free noontime concerts during the Second World War (company and location not specified) and soldiers sobbing during the performance, which Tudor found incredibly touching. Placing this anecdote in London with Rambert makes sense - wish I had thought to ask for more details on that.

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Thanks for letting us know about this, Mary J. I only know "Dark Elegies" from ABT performances, mostly in the '80s (I remember Johan Renvall and Martine Van Hamel, especially) and it's a ballet I wish remained in repertory more steadily.

Originally posted by Lynette H

. There is a note in one of the books about Rambert (one produced to commemorate their 70th year, which contains details of all their repertory over time) that the version they performed was one which had been passed down within the company, but that this is not necessarily the same as the version the choreographer later felt happy with. I think the text indicated that they had an agreement with the estate that they would not perform 'their' version more often than a specified period - maybe it was five years ? If anyone's interested I will look up the details, I don't have the volume to hand.

Lynette, I wasn't aware of that -- I'm not surprised that the ballet changed in later stagings, but the idea that the "original" could only be performed every five years seems novel! Thanks for that.

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