Antony Tudor is undoubtedly regarded as one of the greatest choreographers of all time. His body of work is only equaled in scope with the improbable journey he undertook to achieve this greatness. What follows does not pretend to be an exhaustive history, but rather selected anecdotes to give the reader a peek inside the life of one of the most creative forces in twentieth-century dance.
Tudor was born William Cook on April 4, 1908. He grew up in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Finsbury, a suburb east of London. His father was a butcher at the famous Smithfield meat market in nearby Islington, which his mother helped manage. Neither parent had any connection to the arts, typical of most working-class families of that region and era, but music would still play an important part of Tudor’s childhood.
Tudor’s mother played the piano and gave him lessons as a youngster. This would prove to be an invaluable skill for the budding choreographer later in life. While Tudor did not have an upbringing filled with the arts, his early memories of his father taking him to music hall shows (a form of vaudeville in London) left an indelible impression on the boy. He stated that his exposure to these performances left him “completely stage-struck. Forever and ever." Perhaps foreshadowing his future career, Tudor remembered creating dances with his siblings at the age of six, using the marble slab counters of the fish shop next door as a stage and cutting a little hole in the lace curtains for a spotlight.
A wealthy uncle paid for an excellent education, allowing Tudor two years of study beyond the then traditional age of fourteen. During his time as a schoolboy, Tudor accidentally discovered ballet. Riding on the top of a double-decker tram on the way to physical education fields, Tudor noticed a large studio window level with his view. Inside, he saw young people “doing the strangest things.” It turned out to be a typical dance studio that taught a little bit of everything, including drama. Tudor signed up, but apparently found the classes “dreadful” due to this smorgasbord approach.
Soon after starting these classes, Tudor began spending his evenings working as an actor with small Dramatic Societies he would later credit as an influence on his choreography. Tudor’s role as Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the age of 18 and other characters would appear in his first ballet, Cross-Garter’d. As he progressed through bigger and better dramatic societies he was exposed to his first dance class on partnering, where the foundation of his philosophy was born. During a dance scene in which he played the devil Tudor came to realize how much he loved applause. Although acting was an appealing career to Tudor, he lacked a confident “voice,” setting his path towards becoming a dancer.
Tudor’s first exposure to professional ballet did not come until 1926 or 1927, when he first saw The Diaghilev Ballet Russes. This Russian company would later introduce him to the great Anna Pavlova, who enchanted Tudor and solidified his destiny to enter the world of dance.
Unlike his contemporaries, Antony Tudor did not become a ballet dancer until his late teens. Spurred by witnessing a memorable performance by Serge Lifar of the Diaghilev Ballet in Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète in 1928, Tudor decided it was time to get serious about his interest in dance. He was advised to contact Cyril Beaumont, a writer, publisher and owner of a ballet book shop in the Charing Cross Road district in London. Beaumont suggested Tudor work with either Margaret Craske or Marie Rambert, both of whom had ballet schools in London. Rambert had danced with the Diaghilev Ballet and was considered an influential presence in the rapidly growing English ballet community. Her faculty, like Craske’s, taught the Cecchetti method, mixed with techniques borrowed from visiting Russian teachers.
Thanks to his father, Tudor had by this time acquired a job as a “clark” (English term for office boy) at the Smithfield Meat Market. Although his interest was clearly in music and dance, he could not afford to give up his job. As a result, Tudor could not take classes until after four o’clock in the afternoon. Since Craske did not offer evening classes, Tudor approached Madame Rambert.
Not surprising, Rambert accepted Tudor into her company almost immediately; due to the scarcity of male dancers in England. While Tudor had dabbled in Spanish dance, Tap, German modern dance and Ballroom dancing (especially overhead lifts); he was at a disadvantage due to the late start of his career. Rambert, however, saw something special in this young man from “the other side of the tracks” and set about to expedite his dance education by having him take lessons from her leading dancers. Thus began a ten year association that would launch the career of Antony Tudor.
Rambert was impressed with Tudor’s work ethic as he maintained a full-time job at the meat market while studying ballet every evening. Rambert spoke of Tudor as “tall and handsome with poetic eyes, someone with intelligence and a deep appreciation of the art of dance.” To pay for his lessons, Tudor gradually took on extra work around the school, including teaching younger students (he became a certified teacher of dance in less than a year), playing piano, bookkeeping, working the technical aspects of performances such as lighting and set design, and even janitorial duties.
Tudor made his professional debut dancing for the English Opera Company in 1929, using his annual two weeks of vacation for rehearsals. It was this performance that spurred his eventual name change, as William Cook did not exactly “spark the imagination.” Rambert told him he would never be taken seriously as a performer or choreographer with the name William Cook. He chose Anthony Tudor, with the intentional intimation of royalty, spelling it with the ‘h’ at first. There is a famous story that the “h” met its demise after an encounter with an elderly woman at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, where, in a casual conversation, she suggested he would “never get anywhere with that ‘h’."
In 1930, Tudor first danced with Rambert’s fledgling company in a small part in Michel Fokine’s ballet Le Carnaval and then in Frederick Ashton’s Capriol Suite. Tudor would often dance in his own ballets up until he retired from performing in 1950. He did this not because of ego or self-indulgence, but as a way of learning what worked for dancers and audiences alike.
“I never got the feeling that he really loved to dance,” Sally Brayley Bliss, Trustee of the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, said of Tudor. “He wasn’t considered a great dancer, but his classical technique was strong. When he would show us how to do something, whether the character was a child or a woman, we would be left emotionally stunned. Here he was in his dress shoes and his immaculate clothing and he would move so beautifully. He always did it better than us.” Tudor always demonstrated what he wanted. As he grew older and couldn’t’ do this as easily, he became frustrated and it probably affected his drive to choreograph late in his career.
Although Tudor later admitted he liked dancing in his (and other people’s) ballets, especially dramatic roles where he could emotionally connect with the audience (like Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet), he knew if he truly had ambitions as a dancer, he would have to work on steps, which he loathed. It appeared that, for Tudor, dancing was always a means to an end. And that end was to becoming a choreographer.
The Dream Notes
Frederick Ashton’s The Dream is based on William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The ballet had its premiere in 1964 as part of a Royal Ballet programme commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. The roles of Oberon and Titania were created for Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley, marking the beginning of their enduring and celebrated dance partnership.
Ashton captures all the comic confusion of Shakespeare’s play in inventive choreography. The high-spirited misadventures of the two pairs of mortal lovers combine with the humorous cavorting of Bottom, played by a male dancer who dances en pointe after his ludicrous transformation. The ballet culminates in a powerful pas de deux for Oberon and Titania, which moves through a stormy conflict of wills to a harmonious union. Felix Mendelssohn’s witty, gossamer-light incidental music for the play provides a perfect partner to Ashton’s choreography.
Sir Frederick Ashton
It's easy to forget that Frederick Ashton, founding genius of English ballet, was originally South American. The youngest of four boys, he was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador on 17 September l904, and brought up in Lima, Peru where his sister was born. Ashton's father, a businessman and vice-consul, was British, and so was his mother, who introduced her impressionable son to the airs and graces of belle epoque Lima. Images from childhood - the languorous sensuality of tango dancers at colonial tea dances, the swaying, ritualized walk of feast day processions - stayed with Ashton, infiltrating his choreography. His Roman Catholic schooling also found expression in his ballets. The ceremony and mystical potency of high mass influenced his timing of effects and climaxes, while the ecstatic, baroque indulgence of Spanish religion is obliquely sublimated in Symphonic Variations, his greatest and most life-affirming work. More crucially, it was an epiphanic experience in Lima that decided the 13 year old Ashton's destiny. This was a performance by Anna Pavlova that not only triggered his vocation to dance, but is the palimpsest behind every ballerina role he went on to create.
He was a late starter. After three years in an English boarding school, and a spell of working as a clerk in the City, Ashton began taking weekly private lessons with Leonid Massine, and went on to become a pupil of Marie Rambert. Although he lacked strength and technique, he had a natural elegance and lyricism that enabled him to make his debut as a danseur noble, partnering the great Tamara Karsavina in Les Sylphides. Rambert, divining where Ashton's true gift lay, gave him the opportunity to choreograph his first ballet in l926, designed by Sophie Fedorovich, a close friend and formative collaborator. A Tragedy of Fashion, while youthfully over-indebted to the chic milieu of Bronislava Nijinska's Les Biches, immediately showed a remarkable ability to transpose character into movement. In l928 when Ashton joined the Ida Rubinstein company in Paris, he was able to perfect his craft by apprenticing himself to Nijinska, who taught him how to personalize the language of classical ballet and make it relevant to his time.
Another crucial early influence was Diaghilev's baby ballerina Alicia Markova. Knowing that her career had been put in jeopardy by the impresario's recent death, Ashton arranged for her to be taken on by Rambert as a guest artist - the start of a remarkable collaboration. If Ashton rescued Markova and was responsible for creating a personal repertory that displayed her virtuosic technique and sophisticated musicality, she, with her link to the deities of ballet from Spessivtzeva to Stravinsky, provided him with the experience and heritage that he lacked.
During the l930s, as both a dancer and choreographer, Ashton shared himself between Rambert's small troupe as well as that of Ninette de Valois, while supplementing his meager income by working in commercial theatre. In l935, having established a professional company of her own, de Valois invited Ashton to join her at the Vic-Wells Theatre where, under the inspired musical guidance of Constant Lambert, a native ballet began to evolve. What we have come to call "the English style" was embodied by Ashton's muse, Margot Fonteyn, whose own restraint, simplicity and poise was enriched by traces of the lush, romantic plastique he had loved in Anna Pavlova. After the war, de Valois' company - renamed The Royal Ballet - moved to the Royal Opera House, and in l963, when she retired, Ashton took over as director, remaining in the post for the next seven years.
With an oeuvre of over one hundred works - at least four of which, Symphonic Variations, Scènes de Ballet, The Dream and la Fille mal gardée, are 20th century masterpieces - Frederick Ashton is unquestionably one of the most important choreographers in the history of ballet. He was also a major figure in the cultural landscape of the day: Gertrude Stein pronounced him a genius; Yeats wanted him to direct plays at The Abbey Theatre; Matisse was inspired by the spontaneous flow of his movements; the three Sitwell siblings all sought his company. He took delight in cultivating a dazzling life outside his profession, drawn into the Bright Young set of the Twenties, and launched into English society in the l930s, by the American millionairess Alice Astor. Success in this world was Ashton's fieldwork. The aristocratic manners and mores he observed, like his ability to capture the very essence of a person and their surroundings, imbued ballets such as A Wedding Bouquet and Enigma Variations with their vividness of character and period.
The content of Ashton's work is as personal as its style. He was a romantic, whose emotional life acted as an important creative impetus. Unrequited love for a beautiful young man is the inspiration behind more than one ballet, his own suffering and yearning encoded most ingeniously of all in the story of Two Pigeons, a fantasy about infidelity and reconciliation. Enigma Variations, Ashton's portrayal of the composer Edward Elgar's feelings of professional neglect, is also a confession of the insecurity he himself was experiencing at the end of his career. He need not have been concerned. A recipient of the Order of Merit - the most distinguished honour of all - Sir Frederick Ashton, in his final years, was a national treasure. Not only that, he was a court favourite, a member of the Queen Mother's inner circle, accepted and beloved for his unthrusting nature, brilliant wit and incomparable impersonations. And today, although the choreographer will always live on in his ballets, it is the man himself who is greatly missed. Those who remember Ashton's curtain calls will still picture his pit-pattering along the inside of the drapes to stir-up anticipation before he appeared on stage. Then the slow, regal wave acknowledging the adoration "a la Pavlova", he used to say: first up to the gods, where the true balletomanes sat, then the balcony, grand tier and stalls. Blessed with the common touch, Ashton never lost his degree of humility that was both genuine and tongue-in-cheek. 'Is this really all for me,' he seemed to be saying, "Little Freddie Ashton from Lima, Peru?"
Artistic Director Julie Kent is pleased to announce details of her first-ever commissioned work, Frontier (working title), choreographed by Ethan Stiefel for The Washington Ballet. The work is inspired by President Kennedy and his aspirations for America as a leader of artistic, cultural and intellectual excellence. His historic May 25, 1961 “urgent needs” address to the United States Congress serves as the impetus for this work. This speech launched what became a legacy in U.S. space travel and exploration with a determination for the United States to be the first to land a man on the moon. The President and First Lady focused national attention on the role of the arts in a country and the need for a nation to represent itself through its art. They also encouraged the development of Washington as a cultural center. The President was an advocate for America’s ability to educate and develop individuals in cultural, intellectual and artistic endeavors.
While Stiefel was inspired by President Kennedy to develop a work based on space exploration, Kent was inspired by the President’s dedication to “press ahead to develop an independent artistic force and power of our own.” In commissioning Ethan, Kent stresses that “Ethan is a dancer who was classically trained in the United States and who has made a contribution to the performance and dance education realms both here and abroad having risen to principal dancer in two of our nation’s most elite ballet companies while also being invited as a guest artist throughout the world. He is an example of the American ability to develop and nurture artists with a unique sensibility. President Kennedy’s desire to focus national attention on the role of arts in America and to encourage the development of Washington as a cultural center makes it most appropriate that we commissioned this work and present its world premiere in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I could think of no better emerging choreographer to create a work around the JFK Centenary”. Kent is particularly pleased that the work will premiere at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Opera House as this is consistent with President Kennedy’s desire to develop Washington as a cultural center. “We are privileged to use space as the model for national achievement and accomplishment while using ballet as the artistic vehicle for this message”.
Stiefel investigates space exploration through the perspective of the astronaut, delving into the emotional and physical rigors required for space travel. From the enigmatic anticipation of the adventure yet subsequent isolation in having such a unique and powerful experience, the astronaut’s journey is compelling. While Kennedy used space as a model for national achievement, Stiefel uses his art as a conveyance for this message and for Kennedy’s affirmation at his historic October 1963 Amherst College speech that America must fulfill a desire to achieve and be exceptional in the arts. He stated “it is through both our strength and our arts that we will be judged. Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much.”
Stiefel is an internationally celebrated dancer, instructor, coach, director, choreographer and currently the principal guest instructor at American Ballet Theatre. Stiefel served as a principal dancer at ABT from 1997 thru his retirement in 2012 and began his professional career at age 16 with New York City Ballet where he quickly rose to principal dancer and served in that same capacity at Zurich Ballet prior to joining ABT. He performed leading roles in all of the full-length classics and danced in an extensive range of shorter works created by the most celebrated classical, modern and contemporary choreographers. He served as artistic director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) from 2011-2014. Just prior to his appointment at RNZB he served as Dean of the School of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA). As a choreographer, Stiefel created a new staging of The Nutcracker for UNCSA; a one act comedic ballet, Bier Halle; and he collaborated with Johan Kobborg on choreographing and producing a new production of Giselle for the RNZB. Giselle was adapted into a feature film in 2013. He recently choreographed a new work for the top level of ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, Knightlife, performed at the Joyce Theater in New York in April 2013; he also choreographed a collaborative work on the ABT Studio Company and the Royal Ballet School, See the Youth Advance! that premiered at London’s Covent Garden in May 2016. Stiefel served as choreographer for the 2015 limited edition television series for STARZ network, Flesh and Bone.
Stiefel has appeared as a guest artist throughout the world with The Royal Ballet, The Mariinsky Ballet, New York City Ballet, Australian Ballet, Zürich Ballet, Bayerische Staatsballett, Hamburg Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada, Teatro Colon, New National Theatre (Tokyo), Kings of the Dance and numerous tours in the United States, Japan, Russia and throughout Europe. He is a valued juror and was invited to serve on the jury of the 2015 Prix de Lausanne and 2014 Paris Opera Ballet 2014 promotion exam. Stiefel is the recipient of the prestigious Dance Magazine Award (2008) and the Statue Award of the Princess Grace Foundation, the Foundation’s highest honor, awarded by His Royal Highness Crown Prince Albert of Monaco (1999).
He starred in the feature film Center Stage and returned to play the role of Cooper Nielsen in Center Stage 2 – Turn It Up and Center Stage – On Pointe. Stiefel’s television and video credits include The Dream, Le Corsaire, Die Fledermaus, Gossip Girl and the documentary, Born to be Wild.
MUSIC DIRECTOR & PRINCIPAL CONDUCTOR
Martin West is acknowledged as one of the foremost conductors of ballet, garnering critical acclaim throughout the world. Born in Bolton, England, he studied math at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge University, before studying at the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music and London’s Royal Academy of Music.
In fall 2005, West joined San Francisco Ballet as music director having been a frequent guest since his debut two years earlier He was previously principal conductor of English National Ballet and has worked with many of the top companies in North America such as New York City Ballet, Houston Ballet, and The National Ballet of Canada as well as The Royal Ballet in England.
West has worked with the Hallé Orchestra, Holland Symfonia, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and Odense Symphony Orchestra in Denmark. He made his U.S. symphonic conducting debut with Silicon Valley Symphony, resulting in an immediate re-invitation.
In his ten years as music director he has been credited with raising the standard and profile of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra to new levels and has made a number of critically acclaimed recordings with them, including the complete scores of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, excerpts from Delibes’ Coppélia and Sylvia, and a CD of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky cello music. He and the Orchestra have also made many world premiere recordings, including music by composers such as Bizet, Moszkowski, Shinji Eshima, C.F.Kip Winger, and Maury Yeston whose full-length ballet Tom Sawyer was recorded in 2013. In addition, he conducted on the award-winning DVD of John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid as well as Helgi Tomasson’s productions of Nutcracker for PBS and Romeo & Juliet for Lincoln Center at the Movies: Great American Dance.
In addition to his commissioned compositions, Crystal has extensive work in film and television including compositions in the Academy Award Winning films of Errol Morris and Cynthia Wade; the STARZ network mini-series Flesh and Bone, Showtime’s Happyish; HBO’s Divorce and Discovery’s Vanity Fair Confidential, and his shows have been nominated for Emmy’s, Golden Globes and have premiered at festival around the world.