at the Auditorium Theatre

February 2-13, 1988

American Ballet Theatre has shown that Pillar of Fire, Antony Tudor’s narrative, “psychological” ballet acclaimed as a masterpiece at its debut in 1942, has lost none of its dramatic power. Its poignance, searing exploration of sexual frustration and guilt, insight into the human spirit, and ultimate transcendence over despair retain their force, despite the 40-odd years since it was conceived.

Carefully rehearsed by Tudor before his death last year, these performances were not only a reminder of Tudor’s sensitivity and imagination but of his remarkable sense of theater, and his genius in telling a story in dance. In his work gesture and movement are so subtle that the characters–members of a rigidly moralistic Victorian society–are intimately revealed.

Tudor was also one of the most musical of choreographers. Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night (Verklarte Nacht) was an inspired choice for the music, the perfect companion to the dance in its tormented passion and ultimate warm acceptance of love. Schoenberg’s music was itself inspired by a poem by Richard Dehmel about a couple walking through the night: the wife tells her husband that the child she is bearing is not his, but his love is so strong that he accepts both her and the child.

Tudor transferred the story to turn-of-the-century America and altered it to make his heroine, Hagar, the middle of three sisters. Sexually frustrated, desperately fearful of barren spinsterhood like her older sister’s, and unable to compete with her spoiled, malicious younger sister for the man she loves, she allows herself to be seduced by a young man interested only in sex. Guilt and the community’s opprobrium leave her isolated and desperate. Salvation comes when the upright citizen she loves embraces her and promises her a life of true love and companionship.

Told so baldly, the plot of the ballet sounds mawkishly moralistic and old-fashioned. But as choreographed by Tudor, the work is hauntingly beautiful and meaningful, for Tudor was master not only of the classic vocabulary, but also of a unique form of naturalistic gesture that combined brilliantly with formal ballet technique. Every movement–whether it’s Hagar putting her hand to her face in loneliness, or the seducer crudely thrusting his pelvis at her, or her older sister and companions lifting their skirts away from Hagar to avoid contamination–has a distinctive meaning that builds tension and momentum.

Tudor demands of his dancers, especially Hagar, a constant technical virtuosity, yet the ballet packs such an emotional wallop and is designed with such seamless fluidity that one loses sight of the complexities of the movements, which complement the complexities of the musical score.

For this production, Tudor chose Kathleen Moore and Ethan Brown, corps de ballet members, as Hagar and the seducer, and his choices were impeccable. Moore was unbearably touching and consistent in her interpretation. Because she is very strong technically, she is able to express every nuance of the character, whether she’s being tossed around by Brown, is lifting herself from the floor on pointe, or is being carried aloft by Michael Owen (playing the Friend, Hagar’s true love).

Nora Kaye was also a corps member when she created the role of Hagar, but her talents were immediately recognized by ABT’s management. So far, Moore has still been relegated to minor roles, such as Giselle’s mother–a waste of her outstanding dramatic talents. Ethan Brown (Leslie Browne’s brother) was quite wonderful as the brutal young tough–a real macho stud who never disguises his interest in women with a silken, seductive charm, as Hugh Laing did in the original production.

Amanda McKerrow revealed a new, uninhibited side as the sexually provocative younger sister. Cynthia Anderson, as the Eldest Sister, seemed a little too young and willowy for this straitlaced, mature woman. The rest of the cast–Lovers-in-Innocence and Lovers-in-Experience–were true to Tudor’s style and direction. Happily, ABT management didn’t alter Jo Mielziner’s original set or costumes.

As for Etudes, Harald Lander’s exploration of the ballet vocabulary, it’s really not a ballet proper, no matter how many pretty legs and black and white tutus we see. A lesson in the structure of a ballet class, it shows off the classic technique with great style, but it hardly creates an involvement with what’s onstage. The title is apt, for the entire piece (performed to Carl Czerny’s studies for the piano–here orchestrated with some dissonant touches by Knudaage Riisager) is a series of classic exercises. It starts with the basic five positions, cutely presented by five local youngsters, and proceeds to work by the corps: flashy tours en l’air, jetes, barrel turns, and other breathtakingly difficult steps and big jumps. But although these are stunning in a real ballet, they become tedious when presented for their own sake. In a kind of window dressing, chandeliers keep appearing overhead, and panels depict marble columns. It’s much ado about nothing. Still, the audience seemed to enjoy this overly long illustrated textbook of technique. Martine van Hamel, Wes Chapman, and Robert Hill gave generously of their talents. I just wish it had been worthy of their efforts.

This engagement has been a refreshing change from several past seasons for ABT. The dancing was, for the most part, crisp and accomplished. The Orchestra of Illinois responded sensitively to ABT’s conductors–despite occasional blips. The houses were full, the audiences enthusiastic, though the most famous dancers on the roster were absent. I doubt they were even missed. The answer is not always stars, but lovely dancing in ballets that have an emotional and dramatic impact.