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The last living witnesses bring back an early 20th-century dance classic.

Planets Align 

The last living witnesses bring back an early 20th-century ballet classic

It doesn't matter how great an individual work of art actually is. Not if the paper's weak, or its fibers are high in acid content. Not if the canvas or the paint's inferior. The magnetic coating on a thin black strip of tape doesn't begin to care about the genius of a singer on an evening now long gone, as it slowly starts to separate and flake off the emulsion. Nor does the sun consult the critics before scorching vinyl, bleaching color out, or ruining old negatives.

Thermodynamics have never been great patrons of the arts. And if tangible artifacts like books, photographs and paintings have such difficulty surviving, what chance has something as intangible as dance?

"Most dances disappear," Muriel Topaz notes on a chilly February afternoon over soup and tea on the campus of Duke University. An expert in Labanotation, the most widely used and comprehensive form of dance documentation in use today, Topaz sounds undisturbed as she describes the almost complete erasure of her chosen art. "Now we have videotape and two systems of notation and they're a big help," she says. "But reproducing something from a videotape is a horror, and few pieces get notated. Almost all of it disappears."

You might think the one way to preserve an ephemeral work of art would be to keep it permanently in repertoire. Foolproof, right? Not quite. "Memory changes, over time," Topaz notes. "And people add and they subtract. Little things at first. Then slowly they get bigger." Like an aesthetic version of the game of Telephone, Topaz says "as dancers pass works down from foot to mouth, it turns into an interpretation on somebody else's interpretation on somebody else's interpretation. There's no question that works change.

"At least you get a good approximation, for a while," she adds. "How long that approximation lasts, I don't know. I do know that the dances that get written down are the ones that stay."

Recently Topaz has explored this phenomenon first-hand, in her attempts to all but single-handedly bring an early 20th-century dance masterwork back from the lip of oblivion, over 60 years after its last previous performance. Regional audiences can observe the resurrection firsthand when Duke's Ballet Choreolab presents Topaz's reconstruction of Antony Tudor's early suite, The Planets, at Reynolds Theater.

Its lengthy, tortuous return to the stage has been more than a decade in the making. Its story is a testament to the fragility of art, and the irreplaceability of witness. For in the end, the last witness was all that kept The Planets from going into permanent eclipse.

Tudor was one of the last century's most influential choreographers, and The Planets was his fourth ballet, one of the last he created before leaving England at the start of the Second World War. He based it on the famous suite by Gustav Holst, staging it for his own company, the London Ballet, in 1934. In contrast to Holst's original constellation of seven, Tudor's original version had only the first, second and last movements--"Mars," "Venus" and "Neptune." "Mercury" was added a year later, and the Ballet Rambert kept it in repertory until 1939.

War changed everything. With Arthur Rubenstein and Russian ballerina Andrea Marcova, Tudor just made the last ship to America, beginning five years in exile. To some degree, this involved leaving the past behind him. When exile ended, people shunned him in England, though he'd repeatedly tried to return during the conflict. By then the London Ballet had disbanded, and the Ballet Rambert had moved on to other works. In America, the group that would later become the American Ballet Theater had him stage three works from the pre-war period--every ballet after The Planets.

"But actually a lot of it has to do with Tudor himself," Topaz says. "My sense about it is that he didn't feel it was a mature work." Adding to the difficulty was Tudor's own reticence about selling or licensing his work. "He was impossible," Topaz recalls. "Occasionally he would license a particular work to a company for a short period of time. But he himself did not push his work in any way."

Topaz also believes Tudor never entirely trusted the degree of innovation in The Planets. She knows that her subject was afraid of being labeled "dated."

"Something can be experimental at the time, but if you do it five years later it's not an experiment any more," Topaz says. "There's a letter from when he restaged Pillar of Fire with an Australian company. He said they must never let their energy down, because then it became dated. Now, Pillar is anything but a dated work, but still it shows he was very concerned about that."

A dance falls out of repertoire. Its choreographer moves on to new endeavors. The photos fade. The press clips age, until the newsprint itself disintegrates. There is no written record of the choreography, no videography, no film. Ultimately, the choreographer dies.

The eclipse begins.

Beyond that point, the only hope of reconstruction is from a witness.

Elisabeth Schooling had been a dancer with the Ballet Rambert. She was in her 70s when the Tudor Trust sent Topaz to spend one week with her on her farm in Essex, England, 10 years ago. "She had this fabled memory," Topaz recalls. "Elisabeth showed me what she remembered. That's what we're working from."

In a converted stable, the two talked and showed each other movements. By that point Schooling was physically incapable of much of the ballet's moves, but she directed Topaz in those she could no longer enact: "I'd try to do something and then she'd fix it," Topaz says.

Perhaps the eeriest part of the reconstruction process involved Sally Gilmour, another dancer in one of the repertory versions. Sally was still alive when Tudor and Topaz began the reconstruction.

But she also had Alzheimer's disease. "She didn't know where she was, until the music began," Topaz remembers. "Then she began to dance, with Elisabeth. They were doing the same thing. It was a hair-raising experience. The physical memory of the dance was different from her mental memory."

Two other dancers from Ballet Rambert were able to corroborate much of the initial work: Maude Lloyd, in whose hands Tudor left the company at the start of the war, and Celia Franca, who went on to found the National Ballet of Canada. Four women talking and moving, turning memory and words once again into gestures, speaking a lost work of art into being.

"If there was one opportunity not to lose his work completely, I wanted to try," Topaz says, as she looks into the distance. "I knew that there was nobody else who could do it. If it hadn't been for Elisabeth I wouldn't have gotten it."

Schooling died shortly after their interview. But her testimony had been saved, in the nick of time.

With the performance this weekend, a large responsibility now leaves Topaz's shoulders. "Now I won't be the last witness," she says. "The notation will be complete. And not only will the kids know it, but a repetiteur, someone whose job it is to reconstruct the works, is coming in to see it. It's back. We've brought it back." EndBlock

Contact Byron Woods at byron@indyweek.com.

  • The last living witnesses bring back an early 20th-century dance classic.

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