In 1940, Richard Pleasant, a young publicity agent obsessed with ballet, and Lucia Chase, a wealthy young woman obsessed with a desire to dance, gave their dreams life by founding a ballet troupe–an ambitious project, given that this country was still reeling from the Depression. Even more quixotic, they wanted an American identity at a time when audiences were convinced that only Russians were capable of dancing ballet.

Chase and Pleasant may have been innocents, but they were smarter than the doomsters who predicted that Chase would lose her fortune, for their New York company, the Ballet Theatre (later the American Ballet Theatre), got off to a phenomenally successful start. They did all the right things. Although Chase danced many roles, she knew she also needed important personalities on the marquee. Being rich, she could engage international superstars. She also had a great eye for young, unknown talents, who, as part of her corps de ballet, quickly became legendary. Some of those stars-to-be included Alicia Alonso, Michael Kidd, Jerome Robbins, and Nora Kaye.

The smartest move Chase and Pleasant made, though, was hiring Antony Tudor, a dancer-choreographer who had made an impressive start in England but had been marooned in the United States by World War II. It was Tudor who molded ABT’s unique identity with ballets full of sardonic wit or extraordinary emotional power, particularly those that dealt with tormented sexual relationships. Tudor brought Freud onto the ballet stage–even before Martha Graham–with such poignance and psychological insight that the public flocked to see his works, even more than traditional ballets.

Tudor restaged several of his works, including Dark Elegies and The Lilac Garden, for ABT. He also created a wealth of new works, including Pillar of Fire, Dim Lustre, Undertow, and Shadow of the Wind, a monumental ballet set to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. I saw Shadow and loved it, but it only had a short run, having been deemed a failure by shortsighted critics and viewers who appreciated neither Mahler nor the complexity of the ballet. Lots of ballets are never again performed after their first run, which is sometimes as it should be. But Tudor’s death in 1987 put an end to any hope that Shadow might be revived as Tudor had staged it.

Two of Tudor’s masterpieces–each very different from the other–will be performed by ABT during its two-week Chicago engagement, which opens Tuesday night at the Auditorium Theatre. Gala Performance–a hilarious, satiric spoof about three vain ballerinas who compete for the audience’s adoration at a gala–will be danced only on opening night, which doesn’t make much sense. It’s such great fun that it should get another showing.

Fortunately, Pillar of Fire, Tudor’s masterpiece on sexual frustration and desperation that is set to Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, will be given two performances the following week. Pillar of Fire is the supreme test for a ballerina, and Tudor was very careful about who he permitted to dance the lead. The role made Nora Kaye, its first interpreter, an internationally acclaimed star. She once said, “Tudor was the most inspiring choreographer of his time or of any time, and he inspired me to great heights.”

Kaye’s sentiments are echoed by Kathleen Moore and Ethan Brown, whom Tudor chose before he died for the leads in this revival of Pillar. Brown, who dances the sexy, macho seducer, told an interviewer, “It’s an honor to be in Tudor’s ballets–to work with him. . . . It really makes you feel good, because he’s very picky. . . . I’ve seen him just throw people out of the studio.” Moore is equally proud to have been selected, but she also admits “I’ve had a lot of tears over this part, because every question Mr. Tudor asked me, no matter what I said, even if he had said it in rehearsal before in those exact words, he’d look at me and . . . call me a stupid girl, stupid bitch. . . . He’d have this little twinkle in his eye–he just loved it. . . . There was only one time he ever said I did anything right.”

No one has ever said that working with Tudor was easy, least of all Tudor himself. During the filming of a 1985 Swedish documentary, he admitted that he expected his dancers to treat him like God, and that if he were God, his dancers were his children and had to be trained to respond wholeheartedly and obediently to his every demand.

Apart from the two Tudor revivals, ABT’s program is a refreshing change from the trendy, disposable junk the company performed last season. ABT seems to be returning to the tenets that Chase and Tudor believed in–doing the classics beautifully and truthfully, and displaying new works that will always offer pleasure and inspiration.

No matter how many other ballets are presented by ABT, Tudor’s works stand apart. Agnes deMille said, “His works do not date because they have the fresh shock of truth.” Mikhail Baryshnikov, ABT’s present artistic director, recognized Tudor’s importance to all dance, saying, “We do Tudor’s ballets because we must. Tudor is our conscience.”

Pillar of Fire will be performed Tuesday and Wednesday, February 9 and 10, at 8 PM at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress. Evening and matinee performances of other ballets, including Sleeping Beauty and Giselle, begin on February 2 and run through February 13. Prices range from $5 to $42. Call 922-2110 for specifics.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marty Sohl.