Sallie Wilson: Keeper of Antony Tudor's flame
Wednesday 11 June 2008
The dramatic ballerina Sallie Wilson was renowned as an interpreter of the British choreographer Antony Tudor's work after he went to the United States in 1940. After retirement she continued faithfully to keep his delicately calibrated psychological ballets alive in the face of later generations of dancers' cooler personalities and emphasis on technique.
As a shy, neophyte dancer at Ballet (later American Ballet) Theater in 1949, she was soon released, but she had made enough impression on the exacting Tudor that he hired her for his Metropolitan Opera Ballet. She danced there from 1950 to 1955, absorbing his notoriously stern lessons in dramatic stagecraft, so that when he returned to Ballet Theater in 1956, he persuaded the big company to take her back.
Sallie Wilson, born in Fort Worth, Texas, the daughter of an architect, studied ballet locally, and in New York with the Cecchetti teacher Margaret Craske, as well as Tudor and Edward Caton. Briefly a member of George Balanchine's New York City Ballet (NYCB), where she followed Tudor in 1958, she faced with grace the formidable challenge of playing Queen Elizabeth opposite the modern dance star Martha Graham as Mary Queen of Scots, in Graham's section of the Balanchine-Graham Episodes. Among Wilson's other roles was Profane Love in the Benjamin Britten/Artur Rimbaud Illuminations, which NYCB had commissioned in 1950 from Frederick Ashton.
Returning to Ballet Theater, she was at first overshadowed by another dramatic dancer, Nora Kaye. But after Kaye retired, Wilson succeeded her as the leading interpreter of Tudor, then a major force in the company. A turning point was her recreation in 1966 of Kaye's role as the repressed young Hagar in Tudor's 1942 ballet Pillar of Fire. Wilson also stood out in Tudor's memory-piece Dim Lustre and his ballet noir Undertow, as well as works from his pre-war London period, the poignant Dark Elegies and Jardin aux Lilas.
In addition to performing Tudor's works, Wilson succeeded Kaye in Agnes de Mille's 1948 ballet Fall River Legend, in the intense role of the historical figure Lizzie Borden, accused of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe. Wilson appeared in ballets of Balanchine and of Jerome Robbins, and also in modern-dance roles, such as the Pious One in de Mille's Three Virgins. Possessing a strong technique, she originated a role in Alvin Ailey's 1970 The River, set to music of the jazz great Duke Ellington, in which she performed difficult unsupported balances expressive of a sense of yearning.
Later, Wilson danced the role of Queen Anne in the Ben Jonson masque of 1617, The Vision of Delight, in New York City in 1983. She occasionally choreographed, and she created a lavish production of Benjamin Britten's Prince of the Pagodas in Venice for the Italian ballerina Carla Fracci. Most importantly, she staged Tudor's ballets for over 20 companies in the United States, Europe and Australia. In 1992 she supervised the first revival of Undertow at Ballet Theater since 1979.
Much of her approach to roles was reflected in her rehearsal methods, as could be seen with the young dancers of New York Theater Ballet. That was her artistic home as ballet mistress and teacher for the last 20 years of her life. There Wilson staged such ballets as Jardin aux Lilas; Tudor's little-seen Judgment of Paris, a sardonic but arguably compassionate parody played out by three ageing whores and an inebriated roué; and the pas de deux Little Improvisations, a charming miniature of innocent early love.
Wilson, an exacting task master like Tudor, if more patient and soft-spoken, emphasised the melding of precise and precisely timed gesture with the dance steps in a dramatic whole. She would say that the choreography isn't about the mechanics or the presentation of the steps in themselves; the dancers must make every move meaningful, as if danced for the first time. "These are people, not dancers pretending to be people pretending to be dancers. Make it real."
In February she was rehearsing the dancers of New York Theater Ballet for a New York season. Reviewing these performances, the critic Tobi Tobias called her "to my mind the only person able to infuse Tudor's emotionally searing choreography with the inseparable subtleties of gesture and feeling it had when Tudor was with us to coach it himself".
Sallie Wilson, dancer, teacher and ballet mistress: born Fort Worth, Texas 18 April 1932; married 1960 Ali Pourfarrokh (marriage dissolved); died New York 27 April 2008.
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