American Ballet Theatre
Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration
New York City Center
October 31, 2008
by Gay Morris
copyright 2008 by Gay Morris
Antony Tudor is considered one of the great ballet choreographers of the twentieth century, and since his career was closely associated with American Ballet Theatre it is not surprising that ABT would celebrate the centennial of Tudor’s birth, as it did on Friday evening as part of its fall season at City Center. However, Tudor was never easy to place professionally nor easy to deal with personally. Unlike Jerome Robbins, whose long association with New York City was honored by that company last spring, Tudor was not a native son, he did not create a large body of choreography, and he only worked intermittently with ABT. In short, although the company has always claimed Tudor as its own, he was not totally part of it. The ambiguous nature of this relationship may be one of the reasons why Friday’s celebration did not feel altogether committed, showing only sporadic evidence of thought or love.
The evening interspersed film clips with performances of four of Tudor’s ballets, plus a pas de deux. In all, the program lasted an hour-and-a-half with no intermissions. Apparently the idea was that intermissions would interrupt the flow of the evening, but the effect was more one of short-shrift. The films were not particularly revealing or even well-made. Most featured ABT’s director Kevin McKenzie speaking bromides about the choreographer and his working methods. The few clips of Tudor, himself, showed him at his most acerbic. In one, he said that ABT (or Ballet Theatre as it was originally known) invited him to come from London to New York in 1940 because the company wanted Frederick Ashton and couldn’t get him. In another clip, Tudor stated that dancers should treat choreographers like gods to which they submit themselves. Tudor probably meant the comment half humorously, but it was not the most felicitous remark to have quoted. Certainly Tudor was a perfectionist when it came to demanding that dancers inhabit the roles he created and he could be brutal in his criticism when they did not meet his expectations, but he also worked in close collaboration for years with dancers like Nora Kaye, Hugh Laing (his partner in life), and Diana Adams. At the end of his career, Gelsey Kirkland also inspired him. These were great artists who were hardly ciphers.
The evening’s live performance began with a little ballet that Tudor created for students at Juilliard in 1977. Tudor taught for decades at Juilliard and in many ways it was his spiritual home. “Continuo,” is a modest ballet, as one would expect in a work for students, and yet what lucky students they were to be given such graceful choreography. Three couples, all corps members at ABT, danced Tudor’s free and flowing movement to Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” The composition was clearly created to teach and test partnering skills, yet the work was no mere exercise; it illustrated both Tudor’s choreographic skill and his care for those he taught.
Tudor created “Jardin aux Lilas” (1936) not for ABT but for Ballet Rambert, the major company with which he was associated before coming to America. However, ABT danced the work in its first season in 1940 and it quickly became a company mainstay. It is an early example of Tudor’s psychological ballets, in this case having to do with class and the rigidity of social convention. It is set within the context of an evening garden party. Julie Kent looked fragile and beautiful as Caroline, a woman about to enter a marriage of convenience while bidding farewell to her true love. Kristi Boone, as the former mistress of Caroline’s fiancé, was also very fine in her characterization of a desperate woman of strong personality. But ABT apparently did not find it necessary to provide major dancers for the male roles of Caroline’s lover and her fiancé (originally taken by Hugh Laing and Tudor, respectively). The result was that the men lacked the depth of the women, which tended to skew the ballet. Both Cory Stearns, as Caroline’s lover, and Roman Zhurbin, her fiancé, are corps dancers without the kind of experience needed to portray these characters with any kind of complexity. Stearns, particularly, danced without much apparent understanding of what was supposed to be motivating him. For some reason, too, Stearns neglected to hand Kent the bouquet of lilacs near the end of the ballet, which gives meaning to the title of the work.
One of Tudor’s most ingenious ballets was his “Romeo and Juliet,” (1943) in which he set Shakespeare’s story to music by Frederick Delius and reduced the plot to a series of short, powerful vignettes. ABT offered Romeo and Juliet’s farewell duet, a lovely dance that was given a perfunctory performance by Xiomara Reyes and Gennadi Saveliev. Neither of these dancers is known for nuanced characterization, and Tudor’s works have to weld psychological understanding to movement in order to be successful. This casting, like the male leads in “Jardin,” showed a certain lack of interest in how Tudor’s works emerged on the stage.
Fortunately, “Judgment of Paris” (1938), another ballet Tudor created in London before coming to the States, met with a better fate. It is parody of the Greek myth, in which three aging prostitutes replace the three Graces, here vying for the attention of a drunken boulevardier before finally robbing him. “Judgment of Paris” brought back to the stage five ABT retired dancers — Kathleen Moore, Martine van Hamel, Bonnie Mathis — as the prostitutes, Victor Barbee as the waiter, and Kevin McKenzie as the client. These are dancers who know what they are about. The women were both hilarious and sad. Moore went through her vamping paces like a tired work horse. Van Hamel, brandishing two hoops as her “specialty,” gamely smiled as she creaked through her tricks. Mathis used her boa in a useless attempt to seduce the ever more inebriated client. As she rested her elbow on the café table to support her head while gazing into the man’s eyes, he suddenly, brutally, dashed away her supporting arm. That gesture was pure Tudor, communicating an entire relationship in one concise moment. In the end, though, the ladies of night had their revenge as they rifled the pockets of the client, who had drunk himself into unconsciousness.
“Pillar of Fire” (1942), created for ABT and considered one of Tudor’s great works, ended the evening. If “Jardin aux Lilas” deals with sexual repression among the upper classes, “Pillar of Fire” focuses on the same subject within the middle class. Hagar, the neglected sibling among three sisters, dreams of love but in her neurotic self-abasement settles for a quick, violent encounter with a neighbor. When she finds herself pregnant, she is abandoned by everyone but a loyal friend, and so finds the love she seeks. Gillian Murphy has been dancing the role of Hagar for several years and there are those who find her riveting. Although I am an admirer of Murphy and there is no denying that she has grown dramatically, I still do not feel she suits the part. She is simply too commanding a presence, too charismatic to be convincing as a girl with a bad self-image and a longing for acceptance. I would prefer her as Lizzie Borden, another abused protagonist, who in Agnes de Mille’s “Fall River Legend” takes things into her own hands when she has been mistreated long enough. Actually no one in “Pillar of Fire” seemed altogether comfortable except Marian Butler as the flirtatious youngest sister. David Hallberg was surprisingly wooden as the friend who saves Hagar, and Marcelo Gomes, who can usually portray a macho sexpot with little effort, here looked as if he were simply going through the motions. It makes you wonder what kind of coaching the dancers were getting for the ballet. “Pillar of Fire” is not an easy work; without meticulous performances it can look dated or even silly. ABT might have been better off presenting “The Leaves Are Fading,” one of Tudor’s last works and one that the company also danced during the fall season. With its melodic Dvorak score and its atmosphere of romantic remembrance, it would have been a more and less demanding finale to an evening of celebration.
Photo: Melissa Thomas and Thomas Forster in Antony Tudor's Jardin aux Lilas. Photo: © Lois Greenfield 2008