Jardin Aux Lilas, Trio Con Brio, Judgment of Paris, Dark Elegies

Florence Gould Theater, New York, NY; May 10, 2014

Jerry Hochman

New York Theatre Ballet in 'Dark Elegies'. Photo © Dariel Sneed

New York Theatre Ballet in ‘Dark Elegies’.
Photo © Dariel Sneed

A year ago, in a review of one of New York Theater Ballet’s programs, I suggested that the company, if it didn’t already exist, would have to be invented. One of the city’s worst kept secrets, this was another of its carefully selected programs of infrequently performed dances in its Legends and Visionaries series – an evening dedicated to a celebration of Antony Tudor, one of the 20th Century’s great choreographers.

Known particularly as an architect of what some have called ‘psycho-ballets’, Tudor – who is frequently mentioned on the same level as Balanchine, Ashton, and Robbins – explored not only movement, but movement that laid bare the innermost yearnings and the complexity of emotions of the human heart. The characters he created are ‘real’ people; choreographed inventions maybe, but characters with souls. Sometimes his pieces misfire (like his “Shadowplay,” which was revived several years ago by American Ballet Theatre), but most are unforgettable (“Pillar of Fire”, his one act “Romeo and Juliet”, “Leaves Are Fading”).

Last year, NYTB revived one of his masterpieces, “Dark Elegies”. This year, in addition to re-presenting that ballet, it revived another of his masterworks, “Jardin Aux Lilas,” and resuscitated two others from relative obscurity: “Judgment of Paris”, and “Trio Con Brio”. While one of these was less successful, in terms of contemporary sensibilities, than others, that’s not the point. Being able to see them again, or in some cases being able to see them for the first time, is a gift.

“Dark Elegies”, was the most successfully rendered of the pieces presented, and remains the finest of the performances of it that I’ve seen over the years. Choreographed to Gustav Mahler’s “Kinderotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children), the piece is divided into five distinct ‘songs’, and a brief, concluding section called ‘The Resignation’. I’d always admired the ballet’s craft, and could empathize with the emotions displayed, but I don’t recall ever being as deeply moved as I was by the NYTB performances both last year and this year.

Part of the reason for this is the staging and the space. On a smaller stage, the production is necessarily more intimate, and there’s no need for the dancer/actors to project grief on a grand scale. Coincidentally, during a post-performance discussion on Saturday, an unexpected speaker who emerged from the audience was Jane Pritchard, curator of dance for the Victoria and Albert Museum and former archivist for Rambert Dance Company and English National Ballet, who explained that “Dark Elegies” as well as “Jardin Aux Lilas” were originally staged for smaller spaces (e.g. the Mercury Theater), and the transition to larger stages in America was somewhat problematic. Indeed, amplifying the sense of individual and communal suffering is antithetical to the inward thrust of the parents’ pain that Tudor here presents. The smaller space yields a performance that is more personal in its impact – the viewer is not a member of an audience watching from a distance as much as a member of the grieving community.

Integral to this wonderful NYTB production is also the dancing/acting. Of course, the ABT casts I’ve seen in the ballet were extraordinary dancer/actors. In a ballet where the choreographic range is less significant than the delivery of unleashed emotions, the entire NYTB cast shone. I particularly appreciated the depth of the highlighted portrayals in each of the five ‘songs’ by, respectively, Rie Ogura, Carmella Lauer (together with Steven Melendez), Stephen Campanella, Elena Zahlmann, and Choong Hoon Lee. Without in any way diminishing each of these dancers’ performances, Ms. Lauer, Mr. Campanella, and Ms. Zahlmann were outstanding.

Rie Ogura of New York Theatre Ballet in Jardin Aux Lilas.  Photo © Richard Termine

Rie Ogura of New York Theatre Ballet in Jardin Aux Lilas.
Photo © Richard Termine

If there is one Tudor ballet with universal appeal, it is “Jardin Aux Lilas”. First choreographed in 1936, it entered the ABT repertoire in 1940, and where it used to be a staple, but it has been infrequently scheduled in recent seasons. That’s unfortunate – it deserves to be seen more than once every six or so years. Set in Edwardian England, in a garden that is lush with green leaves and flowers, “Jardin” is a hothouse of concentrated bouquet and concentrated emotions. The lead character is ‘Caroline’, and the gathering in the garden is to celebrate her betrothal. But it’s an arranged marriage, and she has no love for ‘The Man She Must Marry’. Rather, her heart is with ‘Her Lover’, who is crushed that she must marry another. But ‘The Man She Must Marry’ has a secret as well: ‘An Episode in His Past’, who yearns for him, and he for her. It all sounds a bit like the plot of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, but here, with no Puck to the rescue, it’s an emotional nightmare. The genius of the piece is its revelation of the multi-faceted emotional reality, and the artificiality, of what’s seen on stage. The real flowers, the real scent of lilacs, the real love, the artificial gathering of plants, the artificially-arranged marriage, the artificial concealment of emotions.

On the smaller Gould theater stage, the actions, and the interplay of emotions, are more concentrated than at larger ABT venues, and NYTB’s dancers did a fine job with it – particularly Ms. Zahlmann’s Caroline, the character able to show the broadest range of emotions: passion when she was alone with Her Lover; icy despair when she was in ‘public’. Walking  the thinnest emotional tightrope is ‘Her Lover’, played by Mr. Melendez. It must be exceedingly difficult to display passion when the passion must at the same time be hidden from view. But I would have liked a bit more of it than he showed. On the other hand, he also provided a factual reference point I don’t recall seeing before – a reaction to the sound of a church-bell that, appropriately, registered instant but muted recognition, and instant but muted resignation. Ms. Ogura, on the other hand, may have expressed a bit too much overt passion – she seemed to be the least bound by the social convention that required her to keep her real emotions under wraps. Guest Artist Charles Askegard, a former ABT dancer and New York City Ballet principal, provided an appropriately wooden characterization of ‘The Man She Must Marry’.

I must concede that I’d grown accustomed to the lush set that focused the action in ABT’s production so well. Its absence here was a detriment, but an understandably necessary one. The backdrop by Gillian Bradshaw-Smith set the scene sufficiently. And if ABT continues to keep its production mothballed, it’s an excellent replacement. The costumes were loaned by ABT.

New York Theatre Ballet in Jardin aux Lilas.  Photo © Richard Termine
New York Theatre Ballet in Jardin Aux Lilas.
Photo © Richard Termine

In between “Dark Elegies” and “Jardin Aux Lilas” were two relatively short pieces: “Trio Con Brio” and “Judgment of Paris”. The latter is rarely seen; the former hasn’t been seen in more than sixty years.“Judgment of Paris” is a two-pronged spoof – of the subject itself (the mythological ‘Judgment of Paris’), and the artificiality of mythology-based ballets in general. But what Tudor’s intentions may have been is not of critical significance here – his “Judgment of Paris” is simply hilarious. Instead of three goddesses, we have three over-the-hill ‘entertainers’ at an over-the-hill gathering place (a pub, a seedy hotel with appended lounge to squeeze wayward visitors further, or perhaps a nightclub long past its prime). A visitor, the Client (the ‘Paris-surrogate’), played by Mr. Campanella, enters the place and is seated. He’s the only person there, other than the three floozies who are seated together at a table drinking. Once the client is seated, the Waiter, played by Mitchell Kilby, signals the women to get to work. Each takes turns attempting to convince the Client to choose her (for what exactly, we don’t know) in a series of hilarious solo dances entertainingly illustrating the women’s complete disinterest. When the show is over, the Client gets fleeced of whatever valuables he still has. Ms. Sadler, Ms. Zahlmann, and Diana Byer, NYTB’s Artistic Director, took turns acting up a storm. It was great fun – and showed more humor than I can recall seeing in any Tudor piece.

“Trio Con Brio” may have been the most significant piece on the program. It was choreographed in 1952 by Mr. Tudor, under a pseudonym, for Jacob’s Pillow, and was since unseen until a 16mm film of it was uncovered about two years ago. The film was in terrible condition:  no sound (although it was known that the composition was supposed to have been “Dances” from “Ruslan and Ludmilla” by Glinka), grainy, staccato images, and empty space. It took two years of work to recreate, and match the movement with the music – and a portion of one variation was burned out and had to be re-choreographed (by Lance Westergard).

Although I can’t claim to have seen even close to all of Tudor’s ballets, “Trio Con Brio” looks different from anything else he’s done. The piece is a plotless, classical dance with an initial movement for three, individual solos, and then a concluding segment for all. But as enthusiastically performed as it was by Ms. Treiber, Mr. Melendez, and Mr. Lee, it looks strange and dated (except for Mr. Melendez’s solo, which included the additional choreography). Perhaps Mr. Tudor had a reason to distance himself from it via the pseudonym. But none of this matters. NYTB deserves kudos for restoring it to the Tudor canon.

Under Ms. Byer’s leadership since its creation in 1978, NYTB, the most widely seen ‘chamber’ ballet in the country, has proven itself to be one of New York’s greatest assets. As this program demonstrates, its reputation is well deserved. Accordingly, the news, announced at the performance by her that the company and its school, facing imminent eviction from its current location, had found a new home at St Mark’s Church on the Bowery, was welcome news indeed. Losing this little company would have been as unfortunate, and unthinkable, as losing the dances that NYTB rescues from obscurity.