Master of the psychological ballet
Antony Tudor was a British ballet choreographer who introduced the psychological ballet, exploring character development, emotion and subtext. Though Tudor wasn’t a prolific choreographer, his works brought legitimacy and public acclaim to the newly formed American Ballet Theatre.
Tudor was born William Cook in London to a working-class family. Growing up, he often attended musical theater variety shows with his father, a butcher, and his mother, who gave him piano lessons. He didn’t take his first dance class until he was 16—just before he dropped out of school. After seeing Anna Pavlova and the Ballets Russes perform, Tudor decided to train seriously with Marie Rambert, who had just formed her own company, Ballet Club. He debuted with the company at 21 and soon chose Antony Tudor as his stage name.
While working as a jack-of-all-trades for Rambert (secretary, stage manager, electrician and accompanist, in addition to his role as a dancer), Tudor got to try his hand at choreography. His first ballet, Cross Garter’d, premiered in 1931.
Tudor created two of his most famous ballets, Jardin aux Lilas (1936) and Dark Elegies (1937), while still in his 20s. He often starred in his own works, as did Hugh Laing, another Ballet Club dancer who soon became Tudor’s artistic and romantic partner.
Tudor left Rambert’s troupe in 1937 to start Dance Theatre with Agnes de Mille, but the company folded after one season. He founded London Ballet a year later, but after a promising debut, he set sail for America: He’d been invited to set his work on the fledgling American Ballet Theatre. Though Tudor originally planned to spend only 10 weeks in the U.S., he ended up staying for the rest of his life. He reset his early ballets on ABT with great success but would only produce two additional master works, more than 30 years apart: Pillar of Fire in 1942 and The Leaves Are Fading in 1975 (inspired by and starring a young Gelsey Kirkland).
Tudor joined The Juilliard School faculty in the 1950s and remained there until 1971; his students included Pina Bausch, Paul Taylor and Carolyn Brown. When Mikhail Baryshnikov became artistic director of ABT in 1980, he named Tudor choreographer emeritus. Tudor died seven years later at age 79. DT
Once, when no pianist showed up for his Royal Opera House rehearsal, Tudor—who’d studied piano growing up—simply plunked himself down at the keys and expertly accompanied his dancers.
Jardin aux Lilas (1936) Sometimes translated as Lilac Garden for American audiences, this piece is set in the formal and etiquette-conscious Edwardian era. At a party, a young woman must choose between her stiff, unfeeling fiancé and her former lover. Tudor sprayed lilac scent in the theater before the piece’s premiere, for atmosphere.
Dark Elegies (1937) This piece is a meditation on grieving: A peasant community has lost all of its children. Dark Elegies, which has been restaged by the Limón Dance Company, resembles the work of Tudor’s modern dance contemporaries, like Martha Graham.
Pillar of Fire (1942) Tudor’s first new work for ABT involves three sisters in a small town who fight over their romantic interests. His cast was so in touch with their individual characters that they claimed they could picture the color of the wallpaper in their rooms.
Tudor’s choreography is gestural—though it steers clear of straight pantomime—and without virtuosic displays. Some call his ballets psychological because of his nuanced characters and use of subtext. He required his dancers to be deeply invested in their characters’ backgrounds, asking them to picture every detail about their fictional lives.
Tudor never gave counts to his dancers. Instead, he insisted they sense the phrasing. In the classroom, he was witty but could also be cruel—he loved breaking dancers down to expose their vulnerability, which he believed led to better dancing.
The Legacy Lives On
Though Tudor’s ballets are performed less frequently these days, they remain in the repertoire of many companies, including ABT. Professional ballet dancers like Alicia Markova, Nora Kaye, Jerome Robbins, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland owe a large part of their early success to him. The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, created before his death, now oversees the staging of his ballets.
“Antony Tudor: Pillar of 20th-century ballet,” by Elizabeth McPherson, Dance Teacher, August 2007
Shadowplay: The Life of Antony Tudor, by Donna Perlmutter, Viking Penguin, 1991
Dance Heritage Coalition: “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures”: danceheritage.org
Photos, from top: courtesy of Kumi Oyama, Star Dancers, Tokyo, and the Antony Tudor Trust; by Marty Sohl, courtesy of ABT