February 25, 2008

Tudor celebration revels in character, not candy

[img id="80355" align="alignleft"] Rarely does a ballet depicting both funeral rites and can-can dancers of the raucous Parisian underworld meld the two so harmoniously in a single program. Even rarer is a dancer’s ability to transform from a grieving mother in mourning clothes to a feisty, garter-and-bustier–wearing laundress in the span of an intermission. The Joffrey Ballet’s Antony Tudor Centennial, a repertory program featuring Lilac Garden, Dark Elegies, and Offenbach in the Underworld, illustrates both the breadth of Tudor’s unique genius and the dancers’ considerable artistic gifts. Lauded as the “king of psychological dance-drama,” the British-born Antony Tudor is regarded as the first choreographer to marry psychology to ballet and create characters with complex thoughts and motives—a far cry from a jealous stepsister or a dancing snowflake. Tudor’s ballets employ the modern idiom and invite the audience to participate in the ballet’s investigation of the human condition by poignantly portraying commonplace scenarios.

The first piece in the program is Le Jardin aux Lilacs (Lilac Garden), a Victorian melodrama filled with secret dalliances and liaisons. First performed by the Joffrey in March 2001, this short ballet is an intimate work that tells the story of Caroline’s final tryst with Her Lover before an imminent marriage to a man she doesn’t love. At the same time, The Man She Must Marry is reflecting upon another oddly named character, Episode in His Past. This piece was Tudor’s first exploration of choreographic language exploring the dancers’ psychological motivations. Tudor’s goal was achieved through the performance of Maia Wilkins (Caroline). Her psychological state and emotions clearly register in her exquisite épaulement; her lifted sternum, at once vulnerable and defiant; and her rich port de bras, which effortlessly communicate a heart full of pain. Wilkins’s short stature does not inhibit her expansive presence. Her lithe limbs are precise, purposeful, and powerful in their movements. The most poignant example of Tudor’s psychological choreography occurs in the final moments of the piece. In the middle of a frozen stage, Wilkins, reclined in her betrothed’s arms, lifts her head and then resignedly lies back down. Never is it clearer that she wishes to avoid this marriage, and never is the futility of such an endeavor more explicit.

The second work in the program, Dark Elegies, is considered to be Tudor’s masterpiece. Set to Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), Dark Elegies is a ballet in five parts. In this performance, bass baritone Stephen Salters sung each section from the stage. His melancholy voice perfectly complemented the emotional turmoil of the village peasants grieving for their dead children. The dancers’ hunched shoulders, inclined heads, and contracted torsos powerfully conveyed a sense of all-consuming grief. These pedestrian movements are more familiar to the audience than any of the formal vocabulary of the classical ballet lexicon. Here, Tudor’s use of sharp, angular movements hearkens to the choreographic style of Martha Graham, but Tudor’s work is imbued with more raw emotional complexity than Graham’s Spartan compositions. I found the most beautiful, elegant, and human part of the work to be a quiet moment in which a quartet kneels in a circle at the center of the stage and rocks forward and backward in unison. This simple gesture suggested the necessity of social support networks in times of trauma, as well as the overwhelming extent of anguish.

The final piece, Offenbach in the Underworld, romps through a late-night soiree at an 1870s Parisian café. Set to the infectious and infamous music of Jacques Offenbach, the ballet chronicles the debacles that unfold as the night wears on. The café’s clientele includes a famous opera star and her entourage, a group of debutantes who mask their identities for a night on the town, a portrait painter conducting sittings, a young military officer, and a group of bawdy laundresses throwing caution to the wind. Erica Lynette Edwards stands out because of her dramatic transformation between Dark Elegies and the final piece. As a desperate, devastated mother, Edwards is heartbreaking; as a scandalous, sassy laundress, she is hilarious. This delightfully gratuitous work might not illustrate Tudor’s capacity for portraying psychological tension, but when the whole cast jumps into a dog-pile, it becomes quite clear that Tudor also has a genius for choreographing scenes of utter, uproarious chaos.

On the one hand, it is remarkable that Tudor’s challenging, sensitive, and introspective choreography has acquired such critical and popular acclaim, especially in a culture that lauds ballets in which dancers project the emotional range of a sugarplum. On the other hand, the rich psychological complexity of Tudor’s dances clearly remains accessible to audiences and captivating to critics. It is not every day that sleeping little girls are transported to a fairy-tale world with dancing confections and toys that come to life. It is far more commonplace to be engaged in tangled love affairs, lose a loved one, or want to cut loose. However intriguing a fantasy world may be, there is a profound sense of validation and solidarity to be found in witnessing a performance that doesn’t feel like one: Tudor successfully crafted dances that translate the fundamental human experiences of love, loss, and laughter onto the stage. As his dancers experience these sensations in their limbs and faces, we experience them too—we have before, and we will again.