Sallie Wilson, Keeper of The Choreographer's Fire

Sallie Wilson, with her beagle, Barnaby, in 1972, kept the nuances of Antony Tudor's works alive.
Sallie Wilson, with her beagle, Barnaby, in 1972, kept the nuances of Antony Tudor's works alive. (By Bob Burchette)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 29, 2008

In our digital era, when a dance company wants to learn a new work, it's often as easy as popping in a DVD of a performance and gathering the dancers. They copy what their pixelated counterparts are doing on-screen, and, with some coaching by a choreographer's stand-in (who may or may not have ever danced the ballet), they're a few rehearsals away from the spotlight.

The meticulous hands-on approach of Sallie Wilson was to that method as couture tailoring is to buying an off-the-rack copy. The transcendent former American Ballet Theatre ballerina, whose acute dramatic skills gave new life to works by Antony Tudor, specialized in her later years in passing on Tudor's choreography, as well as that of Agnes de Mille. Wilson's death Sunday at 76 of a stroke is a particularly heavy blow to the effort to preserve Tudor's exquisitely subtle works -- one-act ballets that are truly short stories for the theater, focusing on everyday people at an emotional crossroads, each step and gesture drawing on dramatic motivation. What repressed fears propel you to smooth back your hair just so, what inner anxiety causes you to clutch at your high-buttoned neckline -- those nuances, coloring key dramatic moments in Tudor's "Pillar of Fire," a ballet in which Wilson was the reigning expert, are what's difficult for dancers to glean from a tape.

"They have to get rid of themselves. Get rid of their habits. It's dangerous -- they have to go into a new vocabulary," Wilson, a petite, outspoken woman, explained to me in 2001 over a martini lunch between rehearsals, when she was in town to stage a Washington Ballet production of "Pillar of Fire," Tudor's landmark hit from 1942.

This was the ballet that made Wilson famous -- she starred as Hagar, a clamped-down tinderbox of nerves who doubts her beau's devotion and betrays him with a neighbor. At Tudor's command, Wilson inherited the role from its originator, the great dance actress Nora Kaye, and quickly made it and other Tudor roles her own in the 1960s and '70s. The iconic British choreographer died in 1987; his centennial is being celebrated this year, making the death of his leading living protege painfully ironic.

As keeper of the flame, Wilson was not always easy to love; even her fans say she could be stubborn and difficult. A few years ago she parted ways with ABT, which now hires others to stage the few Tudor works in its repertory. Recently, Wilson worked most closely with a smaller troupe, the New York Theatre Ballet.

I never saw Wilson dance, but her musicality and magnetic intensity are legendary. She brought those qualities to her rehearsals with younger dancers just stepping into the roles she mastered, and it was a marvel to see, as I did when watching her transform the technically driven Washington Ballet dancers into artists of provocative restraint. Seeing her work with the dancers, most of whom had never danced Tudor choreography before, I was reminded of some of the characters who populate the ballets she upholds -- demanding, searching, forever unsatisfied.

"This is not about how pretty your feet are," Wilson scolded the ensemble.

"Don't make a big thing about this leg," she told one dancer, then showed her how to stretch her limb directly behind her without the exaggerated sweep that comes naturally to ballet dancers.

Wilson focused on the angles of the fingers and the musical timing, and had them repeat a running sequence to make it more urgent. She paid particular attention to Amanda McKerrow, the ABT ballerina who was appearing as a guest in that production, dancing Hagar; Wilson offered a new thought with each rehearsal to layer on the character portrayal.

"What am I going to do with my life?" she urged McKerrow to think, tapping into Hagar's despair, and told her at another point: "Walk out like the earth has swallowed you." Her words utterly changed McKerrow's steps.

"Sallie was very uncompromising, but there's a lot of positive in that," McKerrow said yesterday. "Especially when it comes to a Tudor ballet. She knew what they should be, and she would take you there with her words, and working and working with you until you got it. She made you understand the step before she let you go on to the next one, to get into the guts of it."

Wilson's death points out the lamentably weakening chain linking today's dancers with the unprecedented outpouring of dance creativity in this country a half-century ago and before -- a time when Tudor, de Mille, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine were reshaping and redefining the art of ballet. Balanchine's highly popular works are not, for the time being, in peril; a host of experts in his repertory exists to ensure his ballets are danced accurately. But the less easily reconstituted works -- Tudor's probing examination of a murderer in "Undertow," say -- suffer with each passing year that erases a bit of a cast member's memory, and with each passing dancer who takes critical personal knowledge to the grave.

Wilson's relentless quest to preserve such works reminds us of what the dance world must do more of before it's too late: revisit its rich but ephemeral heritage, and dance it anew.

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