Footsteps of a Giant

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 4, 2008


Eyeing your run-of-the-mill overstuffed classical ballet, the trenchant British choreographer Antony Tudor was apt to scoff, "So much money, so little truth."

Tudor, who would have turned 100 today, wasn't just a sneering crank; he walked the talk. One of the greatest dancemakers of the 20th century, and ballet's leading modernist, he yanked the weeds out of what he saw as a decaying art form, pruning away decorative excess and virtuoso tricks that had no dramatic value. An amateur actor before he became a dancer, he created spare, scrupulously honest one-act works more akin to movement theater -- long before the term was popular -- than to anything seen before in dance halls. That was in the 1930s and '40s, first in London, then in New York, where his career blossomed at Ballet Theatre, the plucky little ensemble now known as American Ballet Theatre.

Tudor's successes -- "Pillar of Fire," "Lilac Garden," "Dark Elegies" and a pithy, distilled "Romeo and Juliet," among others -- established the newborn company as a serious artistic enterprise, and one of the most exciting in the nation. Tudor came to be known as "the conscience of ABT," and was named its associate director in 1975.

Yet his centennial year finds this once-prized innovator half-forgotten. His work has been taken up by several university dance programs -- including the Juilliard School, where Tudor began teaching in the 1950s -- but only about a dozen professional troupes around the country are performing a Tudor work this season. Chicago's Joffrey Ballet has mounted the most substantial tribute, with three pieces performed over two weekends last month. The New York Theatre Ballet, a chamber ensemble, will dance a Tudor bill tonight and next weekend.

ABT, which rarely performs more than one Tudor work a year these days, has little more than that to offer now: At the Antony Tudor Centennial Celebration, a conference of aging Tudor devotees at Juilliard last weekend, ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie said he is thinking of staging a single Tudor ballet along with a film and some excerpts for "a special evening of his works" during the company's fall season.

Compare this with the 33-ballet retrospective New York City Ballet is putting on this spring for the late Jerome Robbins (a Tudor admirer, as it happens), to mark his 90th anniversary.

Make that one more ding for ABT, for the ballet world and for American culture. Tudor,who died in 1987, is going the way of the thank-you note, the calling card and French baroque music. His works are largely written off as too delicately nuanced to teach to today's technique-oriented dancers, too demanding for an audience groomed on the ready thrills and speed of George Balanchine, too financially risky for boards of directors who prefer easy sells -- "Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake" and so on.

And yet, performing in even one Tudor ballet, said the celebrated former dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov in a recent interview, amounted to "a passport to become mature, to be an adult dancer, a dancer in depth, and it was an obvious school for everyone."

As ABT's artistic director in the 1980s, Baryshnikov oversaw productions of at least seven Tudor works, and starred in "Shadowplay." (He was costumed for that ballet, in a ripped fishnet shirt, in that iconic black-and-white poster taped up in many a fan's bedroom.) "His choreographic language was very reserved, almost contrived, and utterly British, of course," Baryshnikov said, "but with a great sense of burning internal fire."

It is precisely that internal fire -- tension and alertness among the characters -- that makes the work so emotionally charged and difficult to render.

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