Choreographed for Stuttgart Ballet at the end of 1973, Voluntaries was a loving memorial to John Cranko, that company's artistic director. He had died prematurely just months earlier during a flight that was bringing the company back to Europe following an immensely successful American tour.
Even before this calamity — Cranko was only 45 when he died — Tetley had already been scheduled to begin working in Stuttgart. He and Cranko had agreed that Tetley would join the company as a resident choreographer. "John had said to me that I should come and take the heat off him. He was being heavily criticized by parts of the German press and public for doing 'old-fashioned' story ballets like Onegin. He said that I should come do new contemporary work so he could continue doing his three-act ballets."
Right after Cranko's death, Marcia Hayd_, Stuttgart's prima ballerina, phoned Tetley and pleaded with him to come to Germany immediately. The outcome was Voluntaries. Tetley remembers the rehearsals as very intense, with the company's dancers assuaging personal grief through communal creativity. "The tremendous spiritual power of that music really did help to lift the company up."
Set to Poulenc's monumental Concerto in G minor for organ, strings and timpani, Voluntaries is a luxurious combination of intense mysticism and soaring rhythmic drive, enhanced by Rouben Ter-Arutunian's sleekly powerful designs. His setting is reminiscent of a cathedral's shimmering rose window.
Voluntaries illustrates Tetley's own special blend of the classical with the contemporary. "I always wanted to make my own language," he says, "something out of my own soul, my own heart. From the beginning I wanted both worlds. So there was a lot of crossings of lines, a lot of leaping between the two. I never wanted to be closed into one school."
Immediately following the premiere of Voluntaries, Tetley was asked to succeed Cranko as Stuttgart's artistic director. He was reluctant to take on administrative duties, but felt he couldn't refuse. He held the job until 1976. "It was a fabulous company of extraordinary dancers," he recalls. 'You know, both William Forsythe and Jir‹ Kylišn were in my corps de ballet."
Tetley was catapulted to international fame with his first ballet, Pierrot lunaire. Choreographed in 1962, it continues to be performed by a variety of companies. The last ballet he choreographed was Lux in Tenebris, created for Houston Ballet in 1999. It may well have been his final creation. "There was a point when I was continuously choreographing, sometime four ballets a year, and," he admits, "that took a lot out of me."
Now 80, he is content to oversee revivals of his existing works for companies around the globe. In London the Royal Ballet performed Pierrot lunaire last season and will be dancing Voluntaries next month. The Norwegian National Ballet has been a particular champion, in Tetley's own words: "They've kept my rep going for 30 years."
At the beginning of the year the Oslo company revived his only full-length ballet, a version of Shakespeare's The Tempest. It was originally created in 1979 for London's Ballet Rambert, now known as Rambert Dance Company. That change of name is indicative of Tetley's own eclectic approach.
Though he is now best known for his work with classical companies, Tetley began his career performing on Broadway in Jerome Robbins's On the Town, then Kiss Me, Kate, choreographed by Hanya Holm, and Agnes de Mille's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He also danced with the top modern choreographers of the 1950s, not only Holm, but also Doris Humphrey, Pearl Lang, Jos_ Lim‹n, Anna Sokolow, John Butler, and eventually with Martha Graham.
When he began taking ballet classes he felt he had to hide the fact. "Back then it was still a 'them and us' war," he says. "I'm not certain that Hanya ever forgave me. It was looked on as an act of betrayal."
During the 1950s classical ballet was still considered as the enemy by the modernists. Yet when Graham first saw Pierrot lunaire she came backstage to tell him how touched she was. "I was very moved," he remembers. "Martha was giving me her blessing, her go-ahead to create in my own way."
In 1956, Tetley performed as a guest artist during the Joffrey Ballet's inaugural season and also spent a season with Robbins's Ballets: USA. At American Ballet Theatre he danced in Billy the Kid and in Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire and Jardin aux Lilas (Lilac Garden). But once he turned to choreography, Tetley stopped performing. That was 44 years ago; even so he continues to spend his life in the studio. "Every time I start working with young dancers," he says, "I feel re-born."
Allen Robertson is the dance editor of Time Out London and co-edits the quarterly Dance Now.