In 1935, a relatively obscure, 27-year-old choreographer told Marie Rambert, one of the pioneer notables of English ballet, that he wished to set a ballet to Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"). She rejected the idea because she thought he wasn't mature enough for so tragic a theme. At his continued insistence, two years later she asked to see one completed song, and immediately she "Realized how profound the choreography was."
"Dark Elegies" was first performed by Ballet Rambert in London in 1937. In the cast were the choreographer himself, Anthony Tudor; Hugh Laing, Tudor's great early exponent; Celia Franca, later founder-director of the National Ballet of Canada; and Agnes de Mille. The decor was by Nadia Benois, niece of Alexandre Benois, Diaghilev's first chief designer, and incidentally, mother of actor Peter Ustinov.
When Tudor emigrated to this country in 1940, "Elegies" found its way into the repertory of the newly established (American) Ballet Theatre, where it has remained since. It was revived this season after a long absence and performed last night at the Kennedy Center as part of ABT's second program of its current visit.
The background is worth recounting because there are exceedingly few ballets among all that have come down to us from the past and present that can lay claim to the quality of profundity. "Elegies," as last tellingly clear, is assuredly one of them. Offhand, it is hard to think of other works of comparably deep impact -- Nijinska's "Les Noces," to which "Elegies" bears some kinship, is one; "Swan Lake," another; after that, the list grows tentative.
Benois' stirringly somber landscape and her muted, peasant costumes, along with Mahler's aching music, are powerful emotional stimuli by themselves, it is true. But it's the way Tudor's chreography completes the circuit, creating a whole new movement vocabulary in the process, that gives the ballet its sublimity.
In itself, dance movement cannot tell stories or convey specifics of feeling. "Elegies" is a ballet about mourning, about the way it is shared, by individuals and within a community. Tudor's great achievement is that, if he cannot make bodies speak, he at least makes them appear to sing, so close to articulate, lyrical utterance are the gestures and formations he devises. A clutching hand, the twist of a shoulder, a sudden fall, a light brushing of fingers over the ground -- such are the chords and progressions of his dance balladry.
Last night's cast did such beautiful justice to the ballet that all the principals are worth citing for excellence -- Lise Houlton, Kevin McKenzie, Marianna Tcherkassky, Danilo Radojevic, and most especially, Martine van Hamel as the first mourner, and Johan Renvall, whose intensely poignant solo was a model of dance poetics. Also to be complimented for their sensitive contributions are singer William Metcalf and conductor Alan Barker.
Fortunately, "Elegies" was not an exception on the program. After the traumas of Tuesday's opening, last night restored a sense of the glory that was and is ABT. The evening brought two other revivals. In Eugene Loring's amazingly cinematic "Billy the Kid," Kirk Peterson gave the title role a compelling, stone-hard bitterness, though the character's vulnerable side seemed rather slighted. Jerome Robbins' "Interplay" was given an aptly zestful accounting that could stand to look a mite less "baletic." Finally, it was a joy to see Natalia Makarova and Anthony Dowell largely recapturing the warmth and insouciance that eluded them Tuesday evening in Robbins' "Other Dances."