New York Library for the Performing Arts
The Jerome Robbins Dance Division
New York, New York

March 27, 2024: Program: The Dance Historian Is In – Diana Byer and Jane Pritchard on 1930s England

Jerry Hochman

On March 27 I attended a program presented by the New York Library for the Performing Arts, presented by the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, titled: Diana Byer and Jane Pritchard on 1930s England – part of its The Dance Historian Is In series. The focus of the program was London’s Mercury Theater and the interaction and choreographic output of three persons who studied, performed, and choreographed there: Frederick Ashton, Agnes de Mille, and Antony Tudor.

The program was introduced by Diana Byer, Founder and Artistic Director Emirata of New York Theatre Ballet, who introduced the first of three live dance presentations, and then passed the baton to Jane Pritchard.

This will be a brief summary of the presentation, highlighting the performances and some of Pritchard’s comments. It’s neither a review of the program nor a precise account of what Pritchard said. I can’t take notes that quickly. But perhaps the program was recorded and will be available via the NYPL.

Pritchard has been the curator for Dance at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum since 2006, prior to which she established archives for Rambert, English National Ballet, and London Contemporary Dance Theatre. She’s curated a variety of exhibitions relating to dance history, costumes and photography, has published on topics ranging from late 19th Century ballet and Anna Pavlova to Rambert and the Ballets Russes, among others, and has received numerous awards and recognition. She was ideally qualified to discuss the subject of dance in 1930s England (touching on the foundation of English ballet and Marie Rambert), including early pieces by, and mutual interaction of, Frederick Ashton, Agnes De Mille, and Antony Tudor, all of whom worked, performed, and studied.at London’s Mercury Theater.

Historical Photos of (l-r) Frederick Ashton,
Agnes de Mille, and Antony Tudor
Photo array courtesy of New York Public Llbrary;
Jerome Robbins Dance Division

The opening live demonstration, following Byers’s introduction, was the Pavane from Ashton’s Capriol Suite, performed by Julian Donahue, Jonathan Leonard (both current dancers with New York Theatre Ballet), and Amanda Treiber, a former dancer with NYTB whose performances I remember well.

The excerpt is noteworthy for it being part of Ashton’s earliest surviving dance (choreographed in 1930). In this excerpt, two men court one woman, who has no interest in either of them (or won’t show it). What I saw were impeccably executed performances that showed no emotion whatsoever, and choreography that was extremely mannered (though I suppose this was the style he was going for) and delivered in a lightly humorous albeit distant and detached way: he appears to have been much more interested in tiny details than character. For me the most noteworthy aspect of it, other than the impeccable performances, were the costumes by William Chappell, who created many of the costumes for Ashton (and did double duty as a dancer in several Ashton dances, including the original of this one).

The program then segued to Pritchard’s extensive and detailed comments, punctuated by many photographs from the period that included, but weren’t limited to, cast photos from the pieces being discussed.

I found interesting Pritchard’s observation, stated at the outset of her presentation, that from their early choreographing days Ashton was primarily interested in movement for movement’s sake, de Mille in imbuing her performances and choreography with a sense of character, and Tudor doing the same with a sense of drama. To me the only surprise there – though it shouldn’t have been – was that these characteristics that audiences can see in their later choreography were evident so early in their careers.

The Panel and Participant Array:
(l-r) Michael Scales (on piano), Amanda Treiber,
Jonathan Leonard, Jane Pritchard, Elena Zahlmann,
Diana Byer, Julian Donahue, and Melissa Sadler
Photo Courtesy of New York Public Library;
Jerome Robbins Dance Division

She also said that the tiny stage in the Bruno Walter Auditorium where the program took place was similar to, and only slightly smaller than, the tiny stage at the Mercury Theater. And she displayed a photograph of a plaque attached to the building’s exterior proclaiming the theater as “The Birthplace of British Ballet.”

After displaying other photographs of the Mercury Theater (outside and inside), and briefly discussing a few early examples of Ashton choreography, Pritchard introduced a filmed extract from Ashton’s Foyer de danse (1932) taken at the Mercury Theater a few months after the dance’s premiere at the Ballet Club). The piece was intended as an evocation of a late 19th Century French ballet class and was inspired by images created by Edgar Degas. The amateur footage taken by a couple attending the performance showed the piece’s (and the little performance group’s) star, Alicia Markova, as L’Etoile, Ashton as the Maitre de Ballet, and a “corps” of six Coryphees. To me, the black and white, and silent, excerpt was interesting even if only for seeing these dancers’ “live” performances -= and seeing more dancing en pointe than I expected. Unfortunately, I can’t judge Ashton’s demeanor in the excerpt beyond what appeared to be his jumping around a lot (which may have been more a product of the impromptu film than the choreography).

New York Theatre Ballet
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Capriol Suite” (Pavane)
Photo by Richard Termine

Beyond that, I found it interesting that Ashton used a Degas focal point some seventy or so years before Christopher Wheeldon created his idiosyncratic revision of Swan Lake, placing it in a late 19th Century French dance studio and using Degas artwork as inspiration – which premiered with the Pennsylvania (now Philadelphia) Ballet in 2004 (and which I saw performed by that company in 2011). I don’t know whether Wheeldon was aware of Ashton’s early piece, but it’s … interesting. [I loved this iteration of Swan Lake (an understatement), though apparently not enough people were similarly taken with it sufficient to keep the production in Philadelphia. To my knowledge if it’s still performed anywhere, it may only be by Joffrey (Chicago).]

After discussing some additional Ashton ballets during the period, Pritchard changed focus to de Mille, and introduced the next live performance: de Mille’s Debut at the Opera (1927), a solo piece. The dance’s original title was “Stage Fright,” which is an accurate description of what the dance is about, and it exemplifies de Mille’s interest in developing “character.”

Elena Zahlmann
in New York Theatre Ballet’s production
of Agnes de Mille’s “Debut at the Opera”
Photo by Richard Termine

As reconstructed by Janet Eilber (Artistic Director of Martha Graham Dance Company), and as performed by Elena Zahlmann (like Treiber a former dancer with NYTB, and also one whose performances I remember well), the piece was a little tour de force. [NYTB recreated Debut at the Opera before I began attending that company’s performances, but I understand that at those performances the role was also danced by Zahlmann.]

Here, that single female dancer is preparing to take the stage for her “debut at the opera,” but is so nervous that she can barely get herself out her dressing room door. Choreographed by de Mille to music from Leo Delibes Coppelia, Zahlmann displayed every detail of character in her facial expressions as well as in her almost slapstick “guaranteed to fail” preparation. The difference between this and the earlier Ashton excerpt was apparent.

To my recollection, Pritchard said that while there wasn’t any close artistic relationship between Ashton and either de Mille or Tudor, she noted that there was an artistic relationship between de Mille and Tudor. Although de Mille had access to both while at Mercury Theater, she joined with Tudor in 1937 in creating Dance Theatre in Oxford and in 1938 in creating London Ballet, and Tudor cast de Mille in the original production of Dark Elegies (1937). She also noted that the intimate Mercury Theater was a perfect setting for Dark Elegies compared to larger spaces, which jibes with my impression after seeing NYTB’s superb production of it.

(l-r) Diana Byer, Elena Zahlmann, and Melissa Sadler
in New York Theatre Ballet’s production of
Antony Tudor’s “Judgment of Paris”
Photo by Dariel Sneed

After further discussion of Tudor’s work, Pritchard introduced the final performance excerpts from his Judgment of Paris (1938), in which he had also cast de Mille (as Venus – a role she repeated at the dance’s New York premiere with ABT in 1940). I saw the dance’s revival by NYTB in 2014, with Zahlmann as Venus, Melissa Sadler as Juno, and Byer herself as Minerva. The piece is a hilarious spoof. Unfortunately, presenting only an excerpt can’t fully communicate the humor in the piece — only the strangeness of it. Nevertheless, Zahlmann reprising her role as Venus, Sadler reprising her role and Treiber as Minerva did fine work even without a context or knowing what the characters were supposed to be doing.

As it turns out, I found by checking my prior comments about the NYTB revival that Pritchard appeared at that particular NYTB performance too, commenting on the pieces presented that night – as well as on the preferred smaller space for these pieces (including Dark Elegies, Jardin Aux Lilas, and Judgment of Paris) compared to the larger spaces used by ABT’s productions, which she described as “problematic.”

The program concluded with Questions and Answers from members of the audience. One of them asked whether Tudor’s one-act Romeo and Juliet would ever be revived by ABT – she had seen in with Natalia Makarova and John Prinz. The panel didn’t – although there were comments about it being in the process of being reconstructed. I echo those sentiments – I saw Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet (in the mid-1970s) at City Center with Hilda Morales (I don’t recall who played Romeo), images of which are etched in my mind. As much as I love MacMillan’s version, Tudor’s (to music by Tchaikovsky, as I recall), is too precious to lose.