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A Tudor Star Rehearses Lilac Garden

by Mindy Aloff
January 12, 2008
New York, NY

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Sallie Wilson arrived late for a recent New York Theatre Ballet (NYTB) rehearsal of Antony Tudor's Lilac Garden. After doffing her jacket, she spontaneously launched into a salutatory phrase of little dance steps to say hello to the company, positioned herself on a seat before the mirror, nodded to the cast to continue from the place they'd reached when she'd walked in, and plunged into the rehearsal. For the next hour, correcting and correcting and correcting, Ms Wilson continued to smile generously. After the first ten or 15 minutes, however, the dancers were too preoccupied to manage even the wattage of a fridge light. One young woman is asked to repeat a leap and its tricky landing some 15 times seriatim. A couple is asked to repeat a running lift nearly 20 times. Or perhaps it was more than that: I lost count.

When you rehearse a Tudor ballet for Sallie Wilson—especially this work, Tudor's first great success and, debatably, the finest ballet he ever made—you are not having fun, at least in the usual, light-hearted meaning of the term. You are lowering yourself into a deep mine in terms of both psychological discovery and the heroic expenditure of physical energy that Ms Wilson requires on Tudor's behalf. And all your dancerly intuitions about how to fix what's wrong or missing—Is my working leg not sweeping around smoothly enough? Are my partner and I too far apart?—need to be reconsidered, translated, really, into a different way of thinking. To dancers concerned about how their legs looked, Ms Wilson said, instead, "Look at this arm: stuck straight out, stiff. You have hands on those lifts. Do it like it's the first time you've ever done it." The sweep of the leg isn't even mentioned. Demonstrating with one of her own aristocratically tapering hands the gesture she saw in need of remedy, Ms Wilson added, "This is like a habit. It's a real hand, with fingers. Each time, think the first time. Everything, always. Otherwise, it looks like a rehearsal. You don't want the audience to see the rehearsal. You want them to see—," and she paused to search for the exact word, "magic."

Many readers will have previously attended performances of Tudor's beloved work; however, for those who have not, a little history may be helpful. This is not the history that dancers of the ballet necessarily know, or need to: it is what a dancegoer of longstanding, like me, brings to the theater—the context into which new productions and performances by new dancers are introduced into a portion of the dance audience.

The original title for the ballet we know as Lilac Garden was in French: Jardin aux Lilas, in keeping with the nationality of the score's composer, Ernest Chausson, whose lovely, bittersweet Poème Tudor finally settled on after originally choosing Gabriel Fauré's Ballade. The première was given in London by the Ballet Rambert in 1936 at the tiny Mercury Theatre, and although Lilac Garden has since been performed by American Ballet Theater and other companies in opera houses, the zigzagging dynamic of the action among moments of piercing intimacy torn from suffocating social confinement evoke the circumstances of the ballet's birth. The dance historian and critic David Vaughan has summarized the plot as follows:

"In Jardin aux Lilas Tudor created a new genre, the psychological ballet. The essence of the story is suggested by the descriptions of the four principal characters [i.e., as embodied in their names, or "names": a young woman named Caroline, Her Lover, The Man She Must Marry, An Episode in His Past]. Caroline's marriage, we are given to understand, is one of convenience. The action of the ballet takes place at an evening garden party, at which she will say goodbye to her friends and particularly to the man she really loves. Also among the guests is her fiancé's discarded mistress. The attempts of Caroline and Her Lover to snatch a few moments together, and of the other woman to be alone with the man who no longer loves her, are continually foiled by interruptions from the other guests. When Caroline finally has to leave, on the arm of her husband-to-be, she does so without having been able to take the fond farewell she had so dearly hoped for."

Although the English version of the ballet's title is an exact translation of the French, it is possible that the French title had an extra allusion to perfume, specifically to the ballet-affiliated names of fragrances presented by the somewhat obscure perfumerie Monna Vanna (the name of a play by Maurice Maeterlinck), which, in 1919, launched "Lilas D'Or," "L'Oiseau Bleue," and "Pavlova," and, in 1920, established itself in Britain. As the story unscrolls of Tudor's Edwardian-era souls in tumult, with the gathering stresses on their interior lives and the increasing layers of propriety and protocol that bind their public behavior, the phrase "Jardin aux Lilas" may point beyond the literal garden, i.e., the element of Nature in the setting, to the art of a perfume that, in a Proustian fashion, embodies the garden at a remove. (Tudor spoke of his Jardin aux Lilas as taking place in the era of his mother. Could she have worn one of the Monna Vanna fragrances?)

In his entry on the work in the International Encyclopedia of Dance, Vaughan also notes that "originally Tudor had wanted to make a ballet based on a short story by Finnish author Aino Kallas, in which a rich landowner wishes to exercise his droit de seigneur on the eve of the marriage of a young peasant couple. Although the bride assents to the assignation, she goes armed with a knife. Tudor soon abandoned that plot line and looked for another. The idea for Jardin aux Lilas suggested itself in a painting that [scenic and costume designer Hugh] Stevenson showed him." That is, the literal violence and violation of the Kallas tale have been made metaphorical and emotional, and much of the ballet's drama is the result of life-and-death passions flashing forth momentarily in a society that has gone as far as possible to repress them. Our glimpses of them during the characters' brief encounters also have a retrospective tension, as if the story we seem to witness firsthand were actually being viewed many years later through the memory of one of the figures—perhaps Caroline; perhaps her sympathetic friend, unnamed yet often referred to as "the girl in green."

This quality of life taking place at a remove, or several removes—of Nature translated, or retranslated, into artifice—is in hailing distance of the idea in The Nutcracker of George Balanchine that the Dewdrop, represented by a ballerina soloist in the "Waltz of the Flowers," refers not to an actual drop of dew among actual blossoms but rather to a sweet, crystalline representation of dew in a box of marzipan flowers, confections available in Russia toward the end of the 19th century, when the first version of the ballet was being planned and to which its libretto apparently alludes. Indeed, the layering of allusions and the playful syntheses of "the real world" and its artificial facsimiles ("playful" because all of them, finally, are fabrications of the imagination) are what used to be meant by the "magic" of the ballet in general, not just the theater of Antony Tudor, who happened to be outstanding in his necromancy. However, it has been decades since dancers could be counted on to recognize this kind of magic as a goal of live performance without extensive explanations, history lessons, and appeals to a kind of innocent vulnerability that very few prize today. And even these lessons and appeals, academically delivered, can get in the way of the dancing. To effect these transformations, Tudor dancers essentially must reinvent their way of thinking about the stage, and, in order to do that, they must see the effort to do so as worth giving up their skepticism and cool in service of such earnest reinvention: they must submit themselves to a process that renders their bodies transparent, so that the audience can see their innermost momentary intentions and intuitions. They must learn, through practice, to control their slightest actions so that, in performance, they can unleash their emotions—for anything less is not worth paying for a ticket to see. They must fire and temper and shape their technique while surrendering to public scrutiny the very fears and desires they use their technique to protect. This isn't a process that takes place in the lecture hall but in the studio.

Two thirds into the Lilac Garden rehearsal, all of this was ironically summarized in a startling and dear gesture on the part of Diana Byer, director of NYTB, who was assisting Ms Wilson. The passage under scrutiny was Caroline's last furtive moments with the Lover, a cadet whom she will probably never see again. The choreography directs him to pluck a sprig of lilac and urgently press it into Caroline's hand as a souvenir of their mutual feelings. The young man performing the cadet had no prop lilac and so kept pressing an air flower in his Caroline's hand. Suddenly, Ms Byer sprang up from her chair, ran into another room, and returned with a sprig of artificial lilac. "It's from the ABT lilacs," she said, "the last of what's left." And so, when this cadet went to press the prop flowers into the hand of this Caroline, he was literally giving her the past. The dancers, immersed in the action, would not necessarily have been conscious of that resonance, and they probably shouldn't be in the course of their work: it would get in the way of the moment's immediacy. For a nondancing observer, the resonance was breathtaking. Still, what mattered most to the ballet was that the cadet had something real to hold and to offer. It was the reality of the prop, rather than its ineffable significance, that really mattered.

The very act of dancing for the public can be thought of as part of Lilac Garden's core identity, a universal, day-to-day story beneath the fancy narrative one in period dress. From that perspective, one begins to appreciate what underlies such a statement as the one Ms Wilson half-whispered after asking a dancer to repeat a jumping entrance a dozen times: "I'm sorry, but this is the choreography. I can't let it go into something else."

Her lilting, almost trans-Atlantic accent notwithstanding, Sallie Wilson is a native of Fort Worth, Texas. For more than 30 years, she performed for international audiences as a member of either American Ballet Theatre (1949-1958, 1960-1980) or, when ABT suspended operations briefly, with the New York City Ballet, where, in 1959, Martha Graham picked her out to create the role of Queen Elizabeth in her half of the Graham-Balanchine Episodes. As dance critic Susan Reiter has written of her, she became a leading dramatic ballerina, performing the Queen in The Cage of Jerome Robbins, the Coquette in Balanchine's La Sonnambula, Profane Love in Frederick Ashton's Illuminations, Lizzie Borden in Agnes de Mille's Fall River Legend, a lead in The Moor's Pavane of José Límon. Jerome Robbins, Alvin Ailey, and de Mille created roles for her. She also triumphed in dances where the emphasis is classical virtuosity—as a principal in Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides, as Myrtha in Giselle, as the lead in the demanding Scherzo section of Balanchine's Western Symphony. However, the roles for which her performances were especially admired were by Tudor at ABT: Dark Elegies, Undertow, Dim Lustre, Romeo and Juliet (Rosalind), and—her signature Tudor role—Hagar in Pillar of Fire, which she first danced in 1966. (Over the course of Ms Wilson's career, she performed three characters in Lilac Garden: she began as "the girl in green" and then proceeded to An Episode from His Past and Caroline.) In the late 1970s and '80s, she also choreographed a handful of ballets for various companies. And, for many years, she has staged and coached Tudor's ballets. At one time, she staged and coached them for ABT; during the administration of Kevin McKenzie, though, she and the company parted ways. The current stager of ABT's Tudor repertory (which the company very rarely performs anymore) is Donald Mahler, who danced for the choreographer directly, as well as in his repertory at various companies, beginning in the 1950's.

Although Mr. Mahler has done reasonable Tudor stagings, at ABT and elsewhere, Ms Wilson's Lilac Garden at NYTB, which I have seen in several seasons, is an incomparable rendering of that ballet, both for its richness of detail and for the heartrending performances of its casts, despite the fact that the technical strengths of the dancers are, for the most part, not in the league of ABT's. The dancers I saw in rehearsal this year are the strongest I've watched in this little company, in both technical respects and in their abilities to absorb Ms Wilson's teaching and make the ballet their own. The principals are: Elena Zahlmann (Caroline), Kyle Coffman (Her Lover), Terence Duncan (The Man She Must Marry—a role that Tudor often danced, himself, with ABT), Julie-Anne Taylor (An Episode from His Past), and Rie Okura (as Caroline's empathic, friend at the garden party, a Greek tragedy-chorus part that is sometimes referred to as "the girl in green").

In an August 2004 interview about staging Tudor's works, conducted by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin for Ballet-Dance magazine, Mr. Mahler said that a staging with a new company took him "usually about three weeks, plus one week of tech rehearsal and dress rehearsal in the theater. Dancers have stronger technique now (at least stronger than I had!) but don't often have an opportunity to do this kind of dramatic ballet, which used to be more common when I was dancing. They do have to learn how to perform Tudor ballets and to 'forget' about being ballet dancers. It takes time and hopefully by doing the steps and choreography, they will increasingly understand the heart of each piece." I have never seen Mr. Mahler conduct a Tudor rehearsal, but it is unimaginable to me that ABT stars would be willing, as the NYTB dancers are for Ms Wilson, to repeat a single choreographic phrase with a leap or a lift in it, full out, without musical support, 15 or 20 times in a row. This is the kind of rehearsing one only reads about in accounts of the young Ballet Theatre, the Ballet Russe de Carlo of the 1940's, or Martha Graham's company when she was still a vital presence. It is risky, as exhaustion can result in injury; and it is wearing for anyone to be corrected so many times in a public setting—even when the corrections are delivered politely and without even a hint of Tudor's own legendary cruelty. (As Mr. Mahler put it: "[Tudor] was very brilliant and had an insight into individuals, and could see your strong and weak points. He often dug into people's weaknesses because he thought it made them better performers.")

At this writing, Ms Wilson, who has been NYTB's coach and ballet mistress for the past 20 years, has been rehearsing the current cast of Lilac Garden on and off for the past three months. She expects to continue her meticulous rehearsing between two and three hours each week until the performances in early February (see below).

There was no edge whatsoever in Ms Wilson's treatment of the dancers; her voice was gentle and low, and her frequent smile softened the sting of criticism. Clearly, she has affection for them. Even so, that affection does not inhibit her from observing problems and requesting that the dancer repeat a section, until he or she at least can make the translation of thinking from, "How do I change the engineering of my action?" to "What is happening in this particular moment? Why is it so important to encounter my partner 'chest-to-chest'? Is my dancing 'honest'?" Ms Wilson used those terms frequently over the hour. When one of the dancers remained perplexed about what she was doing wrong in a passage where she was tilting her upper body as she approached her partner—one of the places in the choreography where Ms Wilson emphasized that she should meet him "chest-to-chest," i.e., with an upright body—Ms Wilson said, "You're making a pose; you're not doing a thought." When another dancer couldn't understand why her large jumping phrase, a grand jeté that the choreography required to be landed—the supporting leg fully turned out and the "working leg" positioned precisely at the ankle—with the dancer unpredictably facing full front, a slightly different direction from that of the path on which the jump was traveling (a little like a knuckleball pitch), Ms Wilson addressed the logistics ("Heel forward."). But she also stressed that the jump must be "an honest grand jeté," that the landing is "relaxed," that the dancer's focus on the jump needed to be aimed "somewhere out of this world," and that the dramatic situation at that instant is intrinsic to the way the phrase must be performed ("You love him.") The dancer had executed this passage perfectly weeks back, at the first rehearsal, spontaneously, without analysis, and then had lost the hang of it. After many repetitions on this occasion, she still wasn't getting it. However, dancing doesn't always yield its advances when one has just been instructed to advance: a teacher's or coach's critique does not always produce results in a eureka moment, the way Annie Sullivan's tracing of the letters for "water" instantly prompted Helen Keller to make the connection between the word and what it signifies. Sometimes, one needs a night's sleep, or another rehearsal, for the changes to sink into one's muscles, to yield physical understanding, to pass into that deep-down world where there is no boundary between body and mind, a world that used to be called the 'unconscious.'

All theatrical dancing depends on constant repetition to get the required movement into the body, because our bodies learn that way. There is no pill, no apothegm, no individual image, no good intention devoutly wished that can substitute for doing a step tens or hundreds of times. If you keep in mind that anyone dancing Lilac Garden will have spent upwards of ten years trying to remember that he or she is, indeed, a ballet dancer, you will have an inkling of how difficult it is, and how much repetition is needed, to help the dancer to "forget," in the sense that Mr. Mahler and Ms Wilson mean. Tudor's ballets are filled with beautiful movement and inventive steps, but the movement and the steps are not ends in themselves: they are platforms for, keyholes into character and story. Yet, in a counterintuitive way, once the dancers know the character and the story, they must forget them as well in each performance and, instead, concentrate on being in each moment. The body, primed by all the repetition, will carry them through the plot on its own, neurologically, especially in the presence of the music; but what Ms Wilson was pushing her cast to focus on, with almost superhuman sensitivity, was the context of now! And now! And now! At one point, for example, she asked her Caroline to use the floor more solidly as she advanced, to remember that "these are people, not dancers pretending to be people pretending to be dancers. Make it real. Stand on your feet and talk to each other. Your language happens to be in dance. It's grass, it's a garden, it's stone." This is not acting in the sense of pantomime or the application of literary ideas to steps and gestures: it is physical and psychological and imaginative submission to an artistic structure in which, if one truly and honestly "just does the steps," one transcends one's everyday reality to become a figure who does not exist apart from that transcendence. That is the magic.

When, on the great crescendo of Chausson's Poème, the cast freezes in this ballet's famous "dream" and Caroline, alone, walks out freely for an instant, I was strongly reminded of a moment in the "Emeralds" section of George Balanchine's Jewels when, also on a great crescendo, a couple attempt, in a series of lifts, to break free together from a line of dancers who prevent them from doing so by linking arms, as if they had translated themselves into a fence. Suddenly, the ballerina of the pair breaks through alone: the couple can only escape if she goes first. The man does follow her, but the triumph is also a tragedy, as if the only context for true freedom were a kind of death. It is, I suppose, merely a coincidence that "Emeralds" is also a French ballet, set to music by Fauré, the very composer who was Tudor's original choice for Jardin aux Lilas.

The New York Theater Ballet will perform Lilac Garden as part of an all-Tudor program to celebrate the centenaries of his birth and that of José Limón. The other Tudor ballets on the bill, all staged by Sallie Wilson, are his Little Improvisations, Judgment of Paris, Fandango, and Les Mains Gauches; Limón's Mazurkas, staged by Sarah Stackhouse, will complete the evening. Performances will be held at 7:30 p.m. on the 8th and 9th of February at Florence Gould Hall, 55 E. 59th Street. Call Ticketmaster (212.307.4100) or the box office of Florence Gould Hall (212.355.6160).
Sallie Wilson rehearsing 'Lilac Garden' with Kyle Coffman Elena Zahlman

Sallie Wilson rehearsing "Lilac Garden" with Kyle Coffman Elena Zahlman

Photo © & courtesy of Briana Blasko

Sallie and Elena Zahlmann in rehearsal

Sallie and Elena Zahlmann in rehearsal

Photo © & courtesy of Briana Blasko

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