In its very first season in 1940, a new company called Ballet Theatre brought celebrated young choreographer, Antony Tudor, over from Great Britain to stage the U.S. premieres of three of his recent ballets: the wildly poetic Jardin aux Lilas, the profoundly moving Dark Elegies, and Judgment of Paris, a rowdy vaudeville. Though the company presented ballets by a richly diverse roster of dancemakers, Tudor was virtually Ballet Theatre's choreographer-in-residence during its early years, and his ballets: at once subtly understated and vividly theatrical: helped shape the company's profile as a serious cultural enterprise. Tudor went on to become an influential faculty member at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School and taught generations of dancers at the Juilliard School. While he created acclaimed works for several distinguished troupes, his relationship with American Ballet Theatre endured: he was appointed the company's associate director in 1974 and its choreographer emeritus in 1980.
Now American Ballet Theatre celebrates Tudor's enduring legacy with a season-long retrospective of his ballets in honor of what would be his 100th birthday (he died in 1987). Every program during the company's fall season at City Center includes at least one Tudor work: or, in an enticing echo, Jiri Kylian's heartfelt tribute to Tudor, Overgrown Path, created in 1980 to music by Leos Janacek. More than a string of "greatest hits," the Tudor Centennial Celebration showcases ballets from throughout the choreographer's career. The magnificent Jardin aux Lilas and Pillar of Fire are represented, of course, but there is also the pas de deux from his seldom-seen Romeo and Juliet, a terse one- act treatment of Shakespeare's tragic tale told to music by Frederick Delius. Created for ABT in 1943, the work was last danced by the company in 1976. The Leaves Are Fading, made for ABT in 1975, offers a swooning, deeply romantic series of reflections on aspects of love. Judgment of Paris, a hit in its revival last season, reveals Tudor's wicked wit. A must-see all-Tudor program on October 31 includes those works plus the sleek 1971 Continuo. The retrospective also features appearances by special guests as well as film excerpts of Tudor at work.
Though any museum curator can tell stories about the difficulties of arranging an exhibit, the basics are relatively simple: once you've got the paintings, you hang them. Things are not so straight forward in dance. A ballet is a living artwork, passed down from person to person. Along with other experts staging the Tudor canon, the company has enlisted two former dancers who are among the last generation to work with the choreographer.
Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner are best known for their years onstage at ABT: McKerrow had the run of the repertoire as a Principal Dancer, and Gardner danced a broad range of roles as a versatile Soloist. Behind the scenes, McKerrow and Gardner, who are married, have long been dedicated teachers and coaches. They are staging ABT's revival of The Leaves Are Fading: a good fit, as they have been staging the ballet for the Anthony Tudor Trust, keeper of the flame, since 2000. (You can catch the 1999 versions of McKerrow and Gardner dancing The Leaves Are Fading on YouTube.) They are also staging Pillar of Fire, a work they know well: between them, the two have performed six different roles in the ballet.
For Gardner, the Tudor connection is very direct. "Antony Tudor got me into American Ballet Theatre," he recalls. "He saw me in an open class when I was a teenager, and he took me to meet Lucia Chase [ABT's co-founder and director for many years]. I signed a contract to join the company right that day, and I worked with Mr. Tudor as soon as I joined the company in 1978. I had seen The Leaves Are Fading when I was about 15 years old, and thought it was a beautiful ballet even as a youngster. So it was a thrill to dance for him in one of his last ballets, Tiller in the Fields."
Achieving the emotional authenticity Tudor's work requires poses substantial challenges for dancers, most of whose training has necessarily focused on the physical. "There was a real learning process," Gardner recalls, "because he had a much more thoughtful way of working than any of us had encountered before. He taught you to go a lot deeper into the work: and into yourself. I had never been challenged that way. But from the very first day of rehearsal with him, I became much more of a thinking person."
Notoriously meticulous, Tudor didn't let excessive politeness get in the way of the choreographic and dramatic results he sought. "I'll be honest," says Amanda McKerrow, "I was really scared before my first rehearsal with him, which was during my first week with ABT. I tried to hide in the back, but he wouldn't let you do that. He expected more than 100 percent commitment because that's what he was bringing. There was a purpose behind his methods: that you understand yourself a little better."
In addition to getting performers to internalize the texts and subtexts of his ballets, Tudor's methods gave dancers a perspective applicable across the board. "He taught me that there is always deeper to go in a ballet," says McKerrow. "Even when you make progress, you still aren't as far as you ultimately can go. I applied that to everything I did. That's definitely a challenge, but the end result is so much more gratifying, certainly to a performer and, I hope, to the audience."
"Over the years," says Gardner, "I've realized that these ballets get to the guts of what's really timeless. They are about the truth that we all share as human beings. Those are deep truths, and not always the good things about people. I would not want to be presumptuous, but sometimes when we're setting the ballets, you feel the work coming to life with what he wanted and what he said. The memories are still fresh."
ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie cites Tudor and his ballets as major influences on his own work. "I had the honor to perform pretty much everything in the repertoire except for Undertow when Mr. Tudor was still active," says McKenzie. "Mr. Tudor wanted you to perform his works in a certain way: you could not change the steps, which were very precise: but he treated you like an actor. That's a big change for most dancers, and it requires your full concentration. Anybody can jump. Anybody can turn. That is technical. Dancing Tudor's ballets requires art. The lesson I carried away from him as an artist, and later as a director, is very important: that the audience believes you."
McKenzie finds that Tudor's works grow in significance and depth over time: not only on an individual level, but culturally as well. "So many of his ballets are works that you can come back to again and again," he says, "and each time they have a new or different meaning that is very personal. Additionally, he changed the course of ballet. Until Jardin aux Lilas, his breakthrough piece, ballets were all about fairies and Wilis and swans. Ballets weren't about real people: but anyone can identify with the people in Jardin. Pillar of Fire, with its themes of redemption and unrequited love, is so poignant and relevant today. It's what half the population carries around inside but won't talk about. The universality of his works keeps them relevant. Anyone walking around on the earth can relate."
Robert Sandla is editor in chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.