Antony Tudor teaching at Jacobs Pillow

Antony Tudor teaching at Jacobs Pillow
Photo courtesy Irma Grant Millard

Antony Tudor : Teacher

In 1951, Tudor was invited by then General Manager Rudolph Bing to become the Director of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School. As all artists of the time additional income was always welcome so he jumped at the opportunity, thus starting his illustrious "side" career as educator. Tudor taught two standard ballet classes and a "Production Class" while at the Met. To balance out the instruction, Tudor brought in Margaret Craske as one of the teachers and they became an effective team. Craske, who Tudor had worked with back in London, played the Yin to Tudorís Yang. They were a dynamic combination.

Craskeís focus on strong, basic technique allowed Tudor to concentrate on stage presence and exploration of choreographic devices. Dancer Sallie Wilson described Tudorís classes as difficult, both mentally and physically... (the classes) were imaginative and frustrating. I would cry, then recover and still end the class happily. It was full of all kinds of emotion and problems.

His impact as a teacher was one a student would never forget. Dancer and author Murial Topaz, an original student of Tudorís at Juilliard who went on to write Undimmed Lustre wrote: "He inspired dancers to attack the movement and really experience it. He gave them not just steps, but an approach to dance. He was always probing."

Tudor would approach a student and give a simple direction, leaving it open-ended to see how the dancer would respond. He never found technical details interesting, which made his partnership with Craske so vital. He taught what to do and she taught how to do it. Although Tudorís classes were constructed quite intelligently, he was known for going off on tangents. Murial Topaz wrote that "(Tudor) pursued these tangents because they had some resonance for what he was doing choreographically, or because he had a momentary conviction about the only right way to perform some step."

Musical experimentation and complex combinations were staples of his classes. He always wanted the dancers in his classes to be pushed outside their comfort zone, extending the potential of the individual beyond their own limited expectations. He never wanted to see a physical preparation for the next step, fearing it would disrupt the flow of the movement. Of course, he demanded virtuosic steps for the purpose of expression of the character, not as a "star turn" or ego feeding. He experimented with movements that might not be anatomically possible, reversed them and all the while forced the dancers to think about what they were doing.

Tudor sometimes used every day items such as a broom or a waste basket as teaching tools for developing muscle memory for specific movements. He sometimes had his students sing to understand the importance of opening the back of the throat. He would ask students to think through problems with a metaphorical message, like attracting a future spouse. He might spend an entire class on the neck, a part of the body he felt was crucial in communicating to the audience. Sometimes he would work with just one student for the entire class, infuriating the rest. His classes were described as both brilliant and perverse.

He always arrived at the psychological through the physical. He taught things such as where the manís gaze should be on the womanís shoulder during partnering; the motivation behind the movement, not just the steps. Dancer and Répétiteur Donald Mahler said Tudor "was very big on challenging you until you revealed yourself to other people. It could be very painful."

Tudor teaching at the Old Met in 1961

Antony Tudor teaching at the Old Met 1961
Courtesy of Elizabeth Sawyer

Dancer William Burdick, a dancer with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, said Tudor taught that "the technique was inside you; you had to dance from the motivation that was centered inside the bodyÖhe talked about the line and the strength in the back (whether facing the audience or not), the back was motivated and carried the whole spirit of the movement."

Cecil Bates, Ballet Master of Ballet Rambert, remembered a class taught by a visiting Tudor in England. ďHe demonstrated the placing of the body for balance doing a lot with fingertip control the partner was just a source of reference with a very light touch. In fact you could let go of her and walk away it was revolutionary at the time.Ē

Donald Mahler was in the Production Class at the Met. It was similar to a method acting class where Tudor would present a problem to the students. One such problem was for the men to act out a young girl in love. None of them could do it. "Everybody was mortified. (Tudor) finally threw up his hands and said, ĎAll right, Iíll do it.í And he was unbelievable."

Margaret Craske told the boys they couldnít do it because they were afraid of making fools of themselves. "He (Tudor) didnít want you to make a fool of yourself," Mahler said. "But he wanted you to get past that fear. He wanted his dancers to "become" the part, not to just 'act' it."

Tudor stayed at The Met until 1962. Dame Alicia Markova became new director of Metropolitan Opera Ballet that year, but Tudor kept the title of Director of the Ballet School until 1963. Tudor taught all over the world after that, including a 1962 trip to teach in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (He returned to Tel Aviv in 1968 to teach at the new Bat-Dor Dance Company). He went on to teach at a small studio in Philadelphia and at the University of California at Irvine in the 1970ís.

While at the Met, Tudor took on another teaching job in 1951 when he became one of the first faculty members of the newly founded dance department at the Juilliard School in New York. Tudor both terrified and fascinated these students. Those who were taking his classes just to fulfill a requirement were usually seduced into ballet. While Tudor made his classes exciting, he expected students to abandon personal problems upon entering the ballet studio. He demanded the same dedication he modeled for his students. His legendary cruel wit and razor tongue would be deployed mercilessly if he was disappointed in someone. He believed that in order to get the performance he wanted he had to strip away the ego. He worked to get beyond the person to the character in the ballet. Dancer and Répétiteur Lance Westergard remembered that "even if he said something horrible to you, he always knew how to pick up the pieces before the end of the class and make you sail out of the room on air."

In an interview with television personality Dick Cavett, Tudor said, "Youíve got to get rid of the personal mannerisms to get to the character in the ballet and dancers don't want to let go. Breaking down a person isn't hard. But you cannot break them down unless you are willing to pick up the ashes right away and turn them into the Phoenix. That's the tough thing. You're terribly tempted to lay them flat and walk on them.

In addition to regular classes, he taught a Ballet Arrangement class that focused on choreography. In it, he challenged students to study the connection between music and the movement. It was not just for future choreographers, but as a way for a dancer to understand the purpose behind the movements they would need to make throughout their careers. As always, one had to be on their toes (both literally and figuratively) in class with Tudor.

Tudor rehearsing at the ABT studios in 1975

Antony Tudor in ABT studios 1975

Tudor would walk by his students and challenge them to exercise their brains as well as their bodies. Dancer (and Former Juilliard student) Bonnie Oda Homsey recalled that Tudor once walked by her during an exercise and asked her when was the last time she had gone to the park just to watch people. "It took me a while, and I still think about it. He was reminding me that one could not become isolated as a dancer. What made the whole language of dance so singularly expressive was our ability to use what we knew in life and have it come out through our bodies. Not only did we have to develop physical facility via technique, but we had to exercise our minds, to begin to understand what we were going to have to seek as people in order to bring movement to life."


 Adapted with permission from Undimmed Lustre by Murial Topaz


 The Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, P.O.Box 783, Ocean Beach, NY 11770
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