The Royal Ballet's forgotten genius

Anthony Tudor's works were as adventurous and unpredictable as their creator. Now two of his masterpieces are returning to Covent Garden
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Nothing concentrates the mind so much as the prospect of departure and, for his last year of directing the Royal Ballet, Anthony Dowell has remembered the inestimable part played by the choreographer Antony Tu]dor in his development, teaching him "how to think and be imaginative" about his roles. So at last we get again, after decades of absence, not one but two ballets by him, Shadowplay and Lilac Garden.

Nothing concentrates the mind so much as the prospect of departure and, for his last year of directing the Royal Ballet, Anthony Dowell has remembered the inestimable part played by the choreographer Antony Tu]dor in his development, teaching him "how to think and be imaginative" about his roles. So at last we get again, after decades of absence, not one but two ballets by him, Shadowplay and Lilac Garden.

Forgotten man? I should have written "forgotten genius", because Tudor and Frederick Ashton, level-pegging through the 1930s, were the two creative masters who set the scene for everyone else. Like Balanchine and Robbins in the United States, they had a depth and imagination in their work that went further than all their successors.

Ashton was the one who, throwing in his lot with the great organiser Ninette de Valois, went on to be recognised as founder-choreographer of the Royal Ballet. Tudor stayed longer with Marie Rambert, who had started them both off; when he left, it was to start his own small company before becoming a founder-member of American Ballet Theatre. America was his base thereafter, although he worked with companies on both sides of the Atlantic and the Pacific.

If a bomb had killed both men when war broke out in 1939, it is possible, even probable, that history would have remembered Tudor as the greater. Ashton's temperament was to please his audience, so many of his early ballets were lightweight; his greatest works came later, when he found courage to please himself. Tudor was adventurous from the start. A subject as ambitious as Holst's The Planets was among his earliest ballets; soon he invented, with Lilac Garden, what Rambert defined as psychological ballet. He went on to make what is still, more than 60 years later, the greatest danced tragedy, Dark Elegies, which shows parents coming to terms with the death of their children. Then, by contrast, came two sharply observant comedies, Judgement of Paris (with the goddesses as cabaret dancers) and Gala Performance, parodying dance mannerisms.

So he left a rich heritage when he moved to New York. Ballet Rambert thrived on it for years, and our new choreographers (John Cranko, Peter Darrell, Kenneth MacMillan) were profoundly influenced by it. But Rambert's 1966 change to a smaller, more modern company affected this, and lately the only Tudor ballet they have retained is Elegies. Luckily, Ashton, having succeeded de Valois at the Royal Ballet, invited Tudor to create two works for them.

Shadowplay, created around the young Dowell, was the first, in 1967; the other, in 1968, was Knight Errant, an incisive adaptation of two episodes from Les Liaisons dangereuses, also with a male central character, made for David Wall. Shadowplay was not only unlike any other work in the Royal repertoire, but also unlike anything Tudor did before or since. When he began rehearsals, he told his friend, the former dancer Maude Lloyd, "I haven't done anything all day. I've just been looking at the company and trying to decide what to do."

Working with dancers he did not know was an unfamiliar and at first unwelcome experience, but he had a capacity for quick assessment of capability. Margaret Barbieri, one of his cast in Knight Errant, put it that his eyes "seemed to pierce right through you; he knew at once what kind of person you were".

Anthony Dowell was not easy to penetrate in that way. Ashton found Dowell somewhat aloof: "You never know what's going on inside him," he once said. Yet Dowell himself admitted that Tudor "scared me by always seeming to know exactly what I was thinking".

As usual, Tudor started with his choice of music. He had a gift for finding the unexpected: Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, for instance, formed the basis for Dark Elegies in 1937, when that composer was almost entirely neglected by the musical world. For Shadowplay he found a neglected French composer, Charles Koechlin, whose works included symphonic poems inspired by Kipling's Jungle Book. Tudor took one of these, Les Bandar-Log, and supplemented it with extracts from another, La Course de printemps.

Naturally, there are allusions to Kipling in the ballet, but they are far from literal. Tudor's main character is not Mowgli but a Boy with Matted Hair, surrounded not by the animals of the original but by a "penumbra" of Arboreals and Aerials, an adult man (the Terrestrial) who might be teacher or even lover, and a Celestial, who is both sex-goddess and angry bitch. The jungle became a met-aphor infused with the Zen Buddhism that Tudor had adopted. The result is less a story than an allegory about searching for Nirvana.

How to get the Royal Ballet's dancers to convey this without telling them a storyline (something that Tudor never did)? He tried to break down Dowell's reserve with a series of questions: whether he preferred to enter stage left or right, upstage, downstage or midway; or perhaps to be on stage when the curtain rose? The dancer would not admit to any preference, but by then, as Tudor said, "he knew I was a nut and he was nervous".

Now came the task of drawing out what Dowell had to give. The dancer said Tudor was never explicit about the role, but "clues were there, so indirectly and unobtrusively that they hardly seemed to come from him. He wanted me to find out for myself. Instead of saying 'Look up,' he would say 'What kind of tree is it up there?", forcing you to concentrate all the time."

"Tell me by your body," Tudor would ask. "I want to know if it's a little tree or a big tree or a spreading shady tree."

But that imaginary tree refused to take shape until one day, going to rehearsal, Tudor saw a beautiful mango on sale, the first he had found in Britain (surprising to know that they are so recent an import). He bought it, hid it behind his back and pressed the fruit unexpectedly into Dowell's hand, whereupon, in Tudor's words, "His eyes opened in wonderment. He looked up at the tree and it was perfect."

However puzzling he found Tudor's methods, Dowell found the process exhilarating. "It helped to develop me," he recalls, "because I was using my mind more than my technique. It was such a concentrated mental thing, and I had to think all the time about what Tudor had said. This helped me a lot with other ballets where I wouldn't normally have thought this way."

Tudor was unpredictable. He could be severe with dancers, but Antoinette Sibley said "few people have made me laugh so much". He rehearsed her and Dowell in Lilac Garden (also at Covent Garden this season), about a woman bidding her lover farewell before a marriage of convenience. "You mustn't overdo the dramatics," he said to Margaret Barbieri about the role. "It's all in the movement." Maude Lloyd, who danced with Tudor in the creation of Lilac Garden and Dark Elegies, recalls: "He never told me anything about the roles, but if you listened to the music and did exactly what he told you, it worked."

Tudor's influence was summed up by critic Peter Williams: "We have had ballets of poetic, even sensational, idea; we have had ballets of beautiful choreographic invention; what we lacked was the mind that could create ballets to make you think, feel and care." That could prove as true today.

'Shadowplay' 28 Oct-13 Nov; 'Lilac Garden' 1-20 Dec Royal Opera House, London (020-7304 4000)

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