at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

February 6-17

Fifty years ago, Antony Tudor changed the face of ballet, and incidentally put American Ballet Theatre (then Ballet Theatre) on the map. Several years after the 1942 premiere of Tudor’s Pillar of Fire, Edwin Denby wrote that it “overwhelmed the audience at its first performance.” He believed that that one ballet was the coup de grace for “Paris-Russianism” in this country, represented at the time by the exiled Ballets Russes.

Even in 1948, however, Denby was pointing out that the “shock value” of Tudor’s dances didn’t last. And certainly today the seduction in Pillar of Fire (and by a boy from the wrong side of the tracks!) and the mistress and lover of Jardin aux Lilas in themselves no longer shock. The surprise is the intensity of feeling Tudor’s choreography still conveys, and his brilliant use of what we might consider small and ordinary means.

ABT’s Tudor evening comprised three works spanning nearly four decades. Jardin aux Lilas (“Lilac Garden”), choreographed in 1936 and first danced by Ballet Theatre in 1940, is a narrative ballet centered on Caroline, a woman about to be married. The setting is a garden party, and present there are her husband-to-be, his former mistress, and Caroline’s lover. Pillar of Fire, to Schoenberg’s music, tells the story of Hagar, who gives herself to a man she doesn’t love when her younger sister seems to be winning the affections of the man she does. The Leaves Are Fading (1975) is a far more abstract ballet, cast in the form of a woman’s memory of romantic pairings. These dances are quite different–Jardin aux Lilas has a fin de siecle decadence, Pillar of Fire the dark, hewn look of American Gothic, and The Leaves Are Fading a (somewhat misleading) air of 19th-century romanticism. But the devices Tudor used in each are strikingly similar.

Tudor was a choreographer who seized on or created the dance equivalents of white space–pauses in the music, dance passages where no one moves. Then he would write something very small and poignant and nearly indecipherable in that vast white space, and today we’re still peering and wondering at it.

In the most striking moment of Jardin aux Lilas, the music goes on but the dancing suddenly comes to a dead stop. Then Caroline extricates herself from the arms of her husband-to-be and, slowly raising one arm, she points at his mistress. Rising up on pointe, she then moves toward and past her lover–it’s as if her pointing arm were passing right through him. That arm is her vision: in a Jamesian moment of realization, she “sees” the facts of the past and future, her husband’s mistress and her own lost love. These simple movements focus the whole narrative thrust of the ballet. In The Leaves Are Fading, during a pause in Dvorak’s music (notes are being played, but haltingly, as if someone were talking about something very important or painful), Tudor makes the duet slow and nearly stop. Suddenly the dancers are simply standing in a loose-armed embrace, looking into each other’s faces. The sexual charge is palpable.

In Pillar of Fire, the white space is created by Hagar’s stillness. Her opening pose, sitting on the stoop of her house, is rigid–she’s a sphinx. When she finally brings her arm up and touches the side of her head, it’s not a natural gesture but part of some obscure ritual. The two maiden ladies who enter shortly thereafter are also rigid–but we can see the difference. Their rigidity has been imposed by society, while Hagar’s is the manifestation of her character. It gradually becomes clear that Hagar is too passionate to fit into either of the societies available to her: the conventional milieu of her family or the rough-and-tumble, callous world of her lover and his friends across the street. The result is stasis–even if she could find the movement that expressed her feelings, her passion would not be welcome in either place anyway.

Tudor plays with variations on Hagar’s stillness throughout Pillar of Fire. The constant motion of Hagar’s little sister, for example, implies a facility that sets one’s teeth on edge. The prudish older sister’s occasional stillness–at one point she’s the eye of a storm of dancers–suggests her kinship with Hagar, and hints at what Hagar could become. But most of all, it’s the disappearance of Hagar’s stillness in the second half of the ballet that’s so moving–and disappointing. In 1942, Denby wrote about the puzzling “sense of exhaustion and retrospection” in the “happy” ending. I think it’s traceable to the fact that Hagar is now dancing with others–mostly the Friend, who wants to marry her despite her “fall.” She gives in to the need for communication, a development we ought to look on gladly but instead see as a tragic dilution of her character. She’ll walk offstage and do dishes like the rest of us. No more mute, still embodiment of fortressed passion.

The other device so striking in these works is Tudor’s use of the dancers’ gazes, the meaning he gives to our observation of others. In Jardin aux Lilas, Caroline and her lover both long for a last kiss. But though they’re alone together several times, their cautious, guilty looks away from each other–are they being observed?–always prevent it. Here society’s observation is oppressive, though Caroline’s friends are willing to look away, to “not see” the lovers–a sign of their sympathy. In the second half of Pillar of Fire, the changing looks between Hagar and the Friend mark her gradual accommodation to him. At first she won’t look at him. When he gazes at her, she pointedly ignores him. But when the Friend walks off, she watches him and not the Lovers-in-Experience dancing, who might otherwise have claimed her attention. Later Hagar backs away from the Friend but keeps her eyes on him while she crosses the entire width of the stage. Finally they plight their troth in a long, unblinking, and mutual regard.

But it’s in The Leaves Are Fading that the dancers’ gazes are crucial–they tell the whole story in this apparently plotless ballet. As in a folk dance, the dancers pointedly observe one another: four women watch a group of men, members of a couple watch each other’s solos in turn, one or more couples observe the duet of another. It’s clear, for example, that a duet performed in privacy carries a different weight and force from one that’s openly observed; and many of these duets begin or end under observation. The question is no longer only, “What do we think of each other?” but also, “What do others think of what we think of each other?” It’s a sign of the seriousness of the relationship between the main couple that they cease to observe others. And of course when the man in this couple eventually ignores the woman’s gaze at him, you know the mood of the woman whose reverie this is.

Tudor’s ballets are hale and hearty, of course, partly because they’re so well and respectfully danced by ABT. Amanda McKerrow, an attenuated sprite, had just enough gravity in The Leaves Are Fading to suggest that her character might be flesh and blood after all. Her partner, Kevin McKenzie, combines an aristocratic hauteur with just the right impetus of feeling. Martine Van Hamel, as the cast-off mistress in Jardin aux Lilas, was powerful, coarse, proud, and abject all at once. Cynthia Anderson had a chiseled, Nordic iciness as the Eldest Sister in Pillar of Fire–but softened sufficiently to suggest a smothered pity and maternal care for Hagar. And Kathleen Moore as Hagar was superb, incandescent and articulate even–especially–within the stony confines of her role.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Martha Swope.