Glen Tetley

Innovative choreographer who fused ballet and modern dance


Glenford Andrew Tetley, dancer and choreographer: born Cleveland, Ohio 3 February 1926; died Palm Beach, Florida 26 January 2007.

Glen Tetley's career as a dancer and choreographer was the result of a rather late and dramatic U-turn. He had completed a two-year pre-medical school course, under the aegis of naval training school, and, at the end of the Second World War, enrolled in Columbia Medical School. Then he saw American Ballet Theatre perform Antony Tudor's Romeo and Juliet, with Alicia Markova and Hugh Laing in the title roles. He was 20 and he decided dance was to be his future.

Medicine's loss was dance's gain. As a performer, Tetley was to appear with a phenomenal range of companies, including American Ballet Theatre, where he danced leading roles, such as the Lover in Tudor's Lilac Garden and Jean in Birgit Cullberg's Miss Julie. As a choreographer he became an international celebrity, the father of Unitard Ballet, characterised by lissom dancers in lycra body tights performing an innovative fusion of modern dance and ballet. Operating mostly as a freelance, he created an enormous body of work and had especially close ties to companies in Europe, among them Rambert Dance Company, the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet.

Glenford Andrew Tetley Jnr was born in 1926 in Cleveland, and raised in a strictly religious household in a Pittsburgh suburb. His father was a businessman, his great-grandfather a minister who founded the Christian Church, a Baptist offshoot.

Transferring from Columbia Medical School to New York University (where he graduated with a science degree in 1948), Glen Tetley began modern dance training with Hanya Holm, danced with her company from 1946 to 1951 and was her assistant in the Broadway productions of Ballet Ballads, Kiss Me, Kate and Out of this World. He also studied ballet with two eminent teachers: Margaret Craske and Antony Tudor (whose choreography had first inspired him), as well as attending classes at the School of American Ballet.

He was to preserve these two strands in his frenetic eclecticism as a dancer. In 1948, he was also dancing in New York City Opera productions; in 1951, he appeared in the world premiere of Gian Carlo Menotti's opera Amahl and the Night Visitors on NBC television; in 1955, he toured Europe with John Butler's American Dance Theater. Then he moved on to bigger companies. He spent 1956-57 with the Joffrey Ballet; 1958-59 found him with two successive Spoleto festivals in Italy and with the Martha Graham Dance Company, where he created roles in Clytemnestra and Embattled Garden.

In 1960, he appeared in the Broadway musical Juno (choreographed by Agnes de Mille), where his solo always raised deafening applause, and joined American Ballet Theatre. In 1961, he moved to Jerome Robbins's Ballets: USA and again appeared on Broadway in the hit musical (also choreographed by Robbins) On the Town.

Then he stopped. He had already been choreographing since 1948; but 5 and 6 May 1962 were to mark his professional début, when he put together a small group of dancers to present his first programme in New York. That programme ended with Pierrot Lunaire, to Arnold Schoenberg's song cycle, which was to become his signature piece, with its commedia dell'arte trio and striking scaffolding set by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, incorporated into the choreography like gymnastic apparatus. Pierrot Lunaire was to be performed by dancers (Christopher Bruce, for example, and Rudolf Nureyev) and companies everywhere, including Rambert and in 2005 the Royal Ballet (further performances are scheduled for this April).

Half-ballet, half-modern dance, Pierrot Lunaire epitomises Tetley's style, legs and feet balletically elongated, torso arching with Grahamesque fullness, the whole body now acknowledging tension, now soaring into release. Although today's choreographers are constantly breaking down the boundaries between genres, decades ago Tetley's pioneering fusion provoked disapproval from certain quarters. But he never doubted the rightness of his duality. "I have always existed in both worlds," he said, "and never felt them to be anything but one world."

This style helped define the newly founded, mould-breaking Netherlands Dance Theatre when he joined in 1962 as guest dancer and choreographer. In 1969 he became co-director of the company with Hans Van Manen and created pieces such as The Anatomy Lesson (1964), inspired by the Rembrandt painting, Circles (1968) and Arena (1969). Mutations (1970), choreographed with Van Manen, and widely shown abroad, had a succès de scandale because of its nudity.

In 1969 Tetley formed his own company with which he toured Europe, and resigned from NDT in 1970. In 1973, he created Voluntaries for the Stuttgart Ballet, as a tribute to the company's late director John Cranko. Voluntaries, to Poulenc's organ concerto, was to become another widely performed piece, entering the Royal Ballet repertoire, for example, where it was premiered with Natalia Makarova heading the cast, her lifted body in a dramatic cruciform pose as the curtain rises. (Voluntaries was revived by the Royal Ballet last year for Tetley's 80th birthday.) In 1974, he accepted the invitation to head the Stuttgart Ballet, where he stayed for two years and also choreographed Greening and Daphnis and Chloë (both 1975).

He entered into a long association with Rambert Dance Company, mounting Ricercare (a 17-minute duet created in 1966 for American Ballet Theatre) and choreographing many new works, among them Ziggurat (1967), to music by Stockhausen, Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968, revived in 1989), based on the postures of Tai Chi Chuan, and his only full-evening ballet, the two-act Tempest (1979), in collaboration with the composer Arne Nordheim with whom he had previously worked for Greening.

When in 1967 he mounted Pierrot Lunaire for the company, he cast the young Christopher Bruce in the title role. It was an exciting time for Bruce, who learnt much from Tetley for his own choreography. "He created a fluent fusion style that was quite unique in those early days," said Bruce. "And in Pierrot Lunaire there is also such theatricality, pantomime and drama. It calls for so much from each dancer." He remembers the company premiere at the Richmond Theatre: "After the show we, with Glen, travelled back on the top of the 27 bus. Taking a taxi would have been unthinkable, much too expensive in those days. And we opened a bottle of champagne that splattered the ceiling."

In the studio, though, Tetley could be a tough task-master.

"He would work you legless and could be quite brutal in his criticism. He had this habit of cajoling and pulling you along, then in the final week taking you apart.:

In 1970, when Kenneth MacMillan became director of the Royal Ballet (jointly at first with John Field), he sought to bring new choreography into the repertoire and commissioned Field Figures (1970) from Tetley, for the Royal Ballet New Group, only just installed as a small touring ensemble. With Stockhausen's electronic score, Nadine Baylis's set of vertical metal rods and the lycra-clad dancers pulled into unfamiliar knots, this uncompromising modernity was an uncomfortable encounter for the Royal Ballet and its audience, despite the presence of stellar performers such as Nureyev. But, in 1972, Tetley returned to create another similarly rigorous experiment for the main company: Laborintus, to a score by Luciano Berio, which again was not a popular success.

Tetley's later works for the Royal Ballet made a more digestible impression: he mounted the popular Voluntaries in 1976 and La Ronde, based on the fin-de-siècle play by Arthur Schnitzler, in 1993; he choreographed Dances of Albion - Dark Night: Glad Day in 1980 and Amores in 1997, the final two deploying his dancers in characteristically spare and excitingly bold, big shapes.

La Ronde was created for the National Ballet of Canada in 1987, another company with which, as artistic associate, he formed strong links. He created Alice, based on the Lewis Carroll books and the relationship between Carroll and Alice Liddell, for the Canadians and Tagore, inspired by the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore; and mounted Voluntaries, Daphnis and Chloë, The Rite of Spring, created for the Munich State Opera (1974), and Sphinx (1977).

Sphinx was performed over many years by English National Ballet. Among his other pieces are Mythical Hunters (1965) for the Batsheva Dance Company and Tristan (1974) for the Paris Opera Ballet. His last creation was Lux in Tenebris (1999) for the Houston Ballet.

Glen Tetley was the subject of many film documentaries and recipient of many awards. His television production of The Firebird with the Royal Danish Ballet won the 1982 Prix d'Italia and in 1987 he was made a Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for his long collaboration with the Norwegian National Ballet.

Nadine Meisner

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