American Ballet Theatre: Etudes of the Classroom Ballet

Classic Arts Features   American Ballet Theatre: Etudes of the Classroom Ballet
An affectionate and exhilarating tribute to the very art form of classical dance, Etudes begins performances June 3 as part of the Twyla Tharp program.

Harold Lander's Etudes begins with students silhouetted against a dark stage practicing at a ballet barre, and ends 45 minutes later with adult dancers making bravura passes across the stage that resonate like thunderclaps. Along the way it follows the evolution of a ballet class as it progresses from the simple to the technically complex, interweaving theatrically paced virtuoso segments. Etudes has a little bit of everything, including an extended interlude that pays homage to the sylphs of nineteenth-century romanticism. Since it first bowed in Denmark in 1948, Etudes has proved to be perhaps the most enduring and widely-performed example of what might be called the "classroom" ballet, allowing audiences a sense of how ballet technique is honed in the studio and transferred to the studio. Fittingly, it is performed to orchestrations by Knudaage Riisager of Czerny piano practice exercises. On June 3 at the Metropolitan Opera House, Etudes returns after eight years to American Ballet Theatre's repertory for seven performances.

A forbear of Etudes in the genre of classroom ballet is August Bournonville's 1849 Konservatoriet, which he created for the Royal Danish Ballet. In 1941, Lander, who was then director of the RDB, staged in Copenhagen a revision of the classroom scene from Konservatoriet. Seven years later, he made Etudes, and in 1951 he presented a revised version for the company that starred his new wife, the young ballerina Toni Lander.

Etudes followed her to the London Festival Ballet, where she danced during the 1950s, and then to New York and what was then called Ballet Theatre. Soon after Toni Lander joined the company in 1961, she taught Etudes to ABT, and then Harold Lander arrived from Denmark "and drilled the hell out of us," recalls former ABT Principal Dancer Bruce Marks.

Pianist Gladys Celeste had joined ABT in 1960. She played for the 1961 rehearsals, which stretched over several months. And she was still playing for them this winter, as ABT readied the ballet for its current Met reappearance. Celeste recalls the challenge it originally posed the company: "We didn't have technique like nowadays," she says. Marks was 24, and had just arrived at Ballet Theatre from the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, but his background was in modern dance. He was grateful for the way that Harold Lander "made people dance better than they really could. He did that for a lot of us."

Etudes entered ABT's repertory at the 54th Street Theatre, New York, on October 5, 1961. It was an immediate hit with dancers and audience. "It was a classic in itself," says Celeste. "It had no story but there was a lot of dancing. It was very different. It was innovative." Toni Lander again starred‹"Her chain_s were legendary," Celeste remembers‹opposite Marks and Royes Fernandez. For the next two decades, Etudes was rarely out of the ABT repertory; it was very frequently used as a closing ballet on ABT's bills. "It actually changed our fortunes," says Marks. "We lived on the ballet."

Today a Ballet Mistress at ABT, Susan Jones joined ABT in 1971 and danced a number of different roles in the Etudes ensemble. She recalls the lengthy cross-country tours that ABT embarked on annually in those years. They might last as long as several months, but individual seasons could be as brief as a split week, (although ABT's days of one-night-stands were over.) Quality studio space in which to work was less readily available than it is today, and it was harder for the dancers to stay in optimum shape. It was among the relatively few ballets in tutus and classical regalia that ABT performed on tour at the time, and the ballet "really, really kept you in shape," Jones remembers, "so that by the time you got back to New York the company wasn't in a shambles."

ABT continued to favor Etudes all though the 1970s; an excerpt turns up in The Turning Point, filmed in 1976 and featuring much of ABT's repertory and stars at that time. Since then, however, ABT's repertory has expanded significantly and Etudes has been performed less frequently. Last December, ABT began working on reviving the ballet.

At a rehearsal in February, I watched Jones rehearse women from the corps de ballet and soloist ranks in some of Etudes's many short sections, thus giving her a sense of who should be featured where, who was best at doing what and who could be depended on to understudy additional roles. She worked mainly from memory, sometimes consulting a DVD of ABT's last Etudes performance, as well as what she calls her "bible" of the ballet: a book of shorthand and diagrams, prepared when she watched Toni Lander rehearse the ballet at ABT in 1980. "It was really a wonderful, wonderful experience to have that information delivered from Toni." Jones thus feels that the Etudes ABT performs is as close to Harold Lander's original conception as possible.

Talking later with me, Jones said she didn't want the rehearsal to feel like an audition, but nevertheless every woman there was showing her mettle. Each had something individual to offer. Inevitably, not all will become leading dancers at ABT. But Etudes shows off individual members of the corps de ballet as much as the principal dancers, allowing dancers to step out in small groups and show what they can do.

There are stylistic pitfalls to Etudes that any company needs to guard against. I've seen Etudes that were overly cute and juvenile, or too hard-hitting and hard-selling. Marks emphasizes that musical discipline is essential to preserving the integrity of the ballet: "Danes are very particular: Oh, this step says this, that's how it goes on the music," he says, with the benefit of his own later experience dancing together with Toni Lander at the Royal Danish Ballet. "People who love to turn, love to ad lib; if they're turning, they like to keep going. But Etudes is meant to be very strictly on the music."

If the Etudes performers fall into "the bombastic circus approach," Jones cautions, "parts of the ballet may end up being stylistically overstated." That was certainly not the case at an ABT run-through of the ballet filmed at the outdoor Carter Barron Amphitheater in Washington, D.C., soon after Etudes entered ABT's repertory. Preserved at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, it features Lander, Fernandez, and Scott Douglas in the leads. The stage is backlit by sun shining through the trees, and the ballet itself is given a similarly mellow performance: crisp, precise, and jubilant. "You don't have to throw it in the audience's face," Jones said this year. "You just have to dance and enjoy it and have a passion about it."

Joel Lobenthal is the dance critic for The New York Sun and assistant editor of Ballet Review.

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