Tudor’s Premieres in London Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With his Jardin aux lilas, Antony Tudor created a new form of dance, the psychological ballet, which represented a step forward in the evolution of twentieth century ballet.

Locale London, England

Summary of Event

When Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes broke up in 1929, the company’s dancers and choreographers dispersed throughout the West, taking with them the heritage of Diaghilev’s bold experiments with contemporary arts and themes. For those who went to England, there was little opportunity for performance; most English ballet was relegated to the music halls. There were, however, two good dance schools in London; one had been formed in 1920 by Marie Rambert, the other in 1926 by Ninette de Valois. Both women had worked with Diaghilev and would found, respectively, Ballet Rambert and the Royal Ballet. [kw]Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas Premieres in London (Jan. 26, 1936)[Tudors Jardin aux lilas Premieres in London (Jan. 26, 1936)] [kw]Jardin aux lilas Premieres in London, Tudor’s (Jan. 26, 1936) [kw]London, Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas Premieres in (Jan. 26, 1936) Jardin aux lilas (ballet) Ballet;Jardin aux lilas Dance;ballet Lilac Garden (ballet) Choreography;ballet [g]England;Jan. 26, 1936: Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas Premieres in London[09120] [c]Dance;Jan. 26, 1936: Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas Premieres in London[09120] Tudor, Antony Rambert, Marie Kaye, Nora Laing, Hugh De Mille, Agnes Pleasant, Richard Chase, Lucia

Marie Rambert was interested in following Diaghilev’s lead in developing contemporary ballet, and she had an acute eye for talent. In 1930, she presented her Rambert Dancers (later called the Ballet Club) in the first season of English ballet. One of her students who had come to study dance in 1928 helped with lights, stage management, refreshments, and anything else that needed doing. He was twenty-two years old, and his name was William Cook. Nine years later, he changed his name to Antony Tudor.

After only three years of study, Tudor created his first ballet. According to Rambert, it was not a good piece, but it showed considerable talent. Tudor honed his talents on Rambert’s dancers (including himself) for another five years. In 1938, the Ballet Club presented his first major work, Jardin aux lilas (later called Lilac Garden). Jardin aux lilas was unlike anything anyone had seen on the ballet stage. Although he worked in the idiom of classical ballet, Tudor had transformed his technique into a vehicle for exposing the characters’ psychological states.

Jardin aux lilas does not have a plot; rather, it depicts a social situation in which the characters are caught with no means of escape. Set in a lilac garden in Edwardian times, it concerns a young woman, Caroline, who is soon to enter a marriage of convenience to a man she does not love. At a farewell party in the lilac garden she must say goodbye to the man she loves, and her fiancée must reaffirm his parting from a former mistress. As Edwardian propriety demanded that personal desires be subjugated to the mandates of society, all four main characters are constrained to accept the situation without overtly expressing their true feelings. Still, Tudor’s first audiences saw very clearly the yearning, frustration, and anguish suffered by each.

To depict these emotions, Tudor did not use the customary approach to choreography, which was to design steps that would then be danced with appropriate feelings. Instead, he reversed the process and derived the movement from the feelings. He understood that even the posture of a character reveals a psychological state. Hence Caroline stands with her arms straight to her sides, her back stiff, her body charged with the effort of self-control. Tudor used small, everyday gestures to the same effect. Fingers to the temple, tentative reaches, a head turning back over the shoulder all suggested the fragments of thought and feeling that passed through the characters. He used classical steps to express or intensify emotion; no steps were included merely for the sake of dancing. Tudor’s use of the dramatic form differed from the standard balletic treatment. He chose music (in this case, Ernest Chausson’s Poème for Violin and Orchestra) that did not have easily identifiable beats or measures but that flowed in long phrases. Tudor choreographed along these sweeping phrases and moved the characters from moment to psychological moment, not from dance to dance. There might be duets, solo passages, and group dances, but these erupted from and receded into the general flow of the ballet.

Unusual uses of time, reminiscent of cinematic effects, also appear in Jardin aux lilas. Encounters between Caroline and her lover, between the man she must marry and his mistress, are furtive and fleeting close-ups within the fluid picture. Toward the end of the piece, when Caroline realizes the time is near when she will never see her lover again, she swoons into the arms of the man she must marry, and all action stops while the music continues. As the other characters stay frozen, Caroline alone moves toward her lover, reaching. The reach is somnambulistic and devoid of hope. She then moves backward into the swoon, and all the characters resume action. This short sequence, the turning point of the ballet, is highlighted by the use of these cinematic techniques (freeze-frame, slow-motion, and dream-sequence effects). The cumulative effect of these elements of style was one of austere beauty and poignancy.

Jardin aux lilas was immediately recognized as a masterpiece. Within the next three years, Tudor created three more major works in London. The first of these, Dark Elegies (1937), Dark Elegies (ballet) performed to Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, was an expression, in ritual form, of the grief of a village of parents who have lost their children. The piece, although more abstract than Jardin aux lilas, displayed the same potency of feeling beneath its simple, folk-based movements.

Despite his predominant emphasis on the psychological aspects of human difficulty, Tudor had a sense of the comic that came out in the remaining two of his significant London works. Judgment of Paris (1938) Judgment of Paris (ballet) was a satiric comedy based on the myth of Paris and the Golden Apple. Gala Performance, Gala Performance (ballet) also created in 1938, poked fun at the backstage intrigues of the ballet world and, most particularly, at the pretensions of ballet dancers from the three major schools, Russian, Italian, and French. By 1938, Tudor had left Rambert to form his own company, the London Ballet, for which he produced Judgment of Paris and Gala Performance. In 1939, however, World War II intervened, and the London theaters were closed. Although he was already a recognized master choreographer, he had no place to work.

During the years when Tudor was developing his craft, American choreographer Agnes de Mille was also in London establishing herself as a ballet recital artist. She was in the original cast of Dark Elegies and danced the role of Venus in Judgment of Paris. In 1938, de Mille returned to New York. Hearing that the newly formed Ballet Theatre (later American Ballet Theatre) was looking for a choreographer, de Mille urged the company to invite Tudor to the United States. He arrived in New York in 1939.

In its inaugural season in January, 1940, Ballet Theatre presented his Jardin aux lilas, Dark Elegies, and Judgment of Paris. American audiences and critics alike embraced him as a major new choreographer, and Tudor was to spend most of the remainder of his life in the United States. At the time of Tudor’s American debut, the new modern dance Modern dance was gaining rapid ground. Tudor had seen in Europe the works of German expressionists Mary Wigman, Harold Kreutzberg, and Kurt Jooss. He discovered in them the valuable precept that feeling and its gestural expression originate in the torso. Of his mode of working, he said: “We start from the spine and the torso, and we get to the feet later. In ballet school you usually start with the feet.” According to American modern dance pioneer Martha Graham, Dark Elegies was “the first ballet to invade modern dance.”

In 1942, Tudor created what is universally considered to be one of the great ballets of the twentieth century. Set to the music of Arnold Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Pillar of Fire Pillar of Fire (ballet) tells the story of Hagar, a young woman of nineteenth century New England. Facing spinsterhood, Hagar hopes for a match with a friend of the family, but the friend appears to be more interested in her younger sister. In desperation she gives herself to a roué and is subsequently ostracized by her family and the town. The ballet focuses on the dilemma of those who, like Hagar, have passions that run deeper than social codes and roles can tolerate and who therefore often become outcasts.

In addition to using posture, everyday gesture, and a blend of modern and ballet techniques in Pillar of Fire, Tudor employs two groups of dancers (the “Lovers in Innocence” and the “Lovers in Experience”) to underline Hagar’s suspension between society’s “good” and “bad.” The hip-swinging, free-wheeling movements of the Lovers in Experience are in contrast with the softer, more conventional movements of the Lovers in Innocence, which, in turn, contrast with the stiffer movements of the judgmental townspeople. Tudor worked on Pillar of Fire for a solid year. On opening night, the labor was rewarded with thirty curtain calls and, subsequently, the highest critical praise. Hagar was danced by Nora Kaye, who was recognized from then on as a great dramatic ballet dancer. She was eminently capable of expressing the finest emotional nuances within the difficult, highly stylized movements and was for many years the model for aspiring Tudor dancers. Other original cast members who set a standard for future dramatic dancers were Tudor’s principal male interpreter and lifelong companion, Hugh Laing, Tudor himself, and Lucia Chase, who eventually became codirector of Ballet Theatre. Following Pillar of Fire, Tudor created The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (1943), Dim Lustre (1943), and Undertow (1945) for Ballet Theatre, Shadow of the Wind (1948) for England’s Royal Ballet, and in 1975, his last masterwork (for American Ballet Theatre), The Leaves Are Fading, an abstract piece with strong lyric undertones.


Tudor’s work focused on the experiences of real people rather than on the adventures of the fairy-tale characters, colorful ethnic personalities, or mythic heroes more typical of ballet. Rather than following a narrative about realistic characters, however, he drew portraits of people whose psychological reactions, in combination with their social situations, created the events.

Tudor influenced a whole generation of dancers and choreographers by the way he worked. He was meticulous and would research his subject extensively before beginning a ballet. He derived gestures from the character in the moment, sometimes taking two or three hours to find and work on one movement. This intensive search for the psychological motivation of movement was entirely new to ballet.

Tudor did not necessarily tell his dancers much about the characters or story. Rather, he led them into it by asking questions and by goading them. Indeed, although dancers flocked to his classes and yearned to be in his ballets, they were almost always terrified of being the target of one of his merciless personal barbs. The purpose behind these verbal assaults was to strip away the “ballet persona” that develops early in many young dancers and that often engenders such set reactions to movement that it becomes almost impossible for many dancers to respond to dramatic situations with any spontaneity or truth. There was no doubt that Tudor’s ballets brought out unsuspected depths of expression in the dancers who performed them.

At a time when English and American ballet were just getting started, Tudor brought to them both distinction and a progressive leap forward in the evolution of ballet. He was the first to achieve a genuine integration of ballet and modern dance and the first to create what has come to be called the psychological ballet. He directly influenced future choreographers of high stature, such as Great Britain’s Walter Gore and America’s Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins. His work pulled choreographers away from melodrama and superficial acting and taught dancers to work in depth, to search for the real motivations of movement. Tudor’s dramatic ballets have been compared to the works of Marcel Proust, Renate Stendhal, and Anton Chekhov for their detailed portraiture of personal inner landscapes. Beginning with Jardin aux lilas, Tudor did something no one else thought possible. In the words of dance critic Fernau Hall, “For the first time in the twentieth century a choreographer succeeded in emulating the achievements of good dramatists, novelists and film directors.” Jardin aux lilas (ballet) Ballet;Jardin aux lilas Dance;ballet Lilac Garden (ballet) Choreography;ballet

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Amberg, George. Ballet: The Emergence of an American Art. New York: New American Library, 1949. Begins with a background of classical ballet from the nineteenth century through Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and traces the development of ballet in the United States through the 1940’s. A fascinating, exhaustive examination of companies, choreographers, works, dancers, and the evolution of twentieth century American aesthetics as seen in its ballet. Chronology. Repertoire listing of all major American companies of the period. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chazin-Bennahum, Judith. The Ballets of Antony Tudor: Studies in Psyche and Satire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A colleague of Tudor, Chazin-Bennahum deliberately adopted an approach very different from that of Tudor biographer Donna Perlmutter; Chazin-Bennahum focuses more on Tudor’s productions than his personality. Essential reading for those interested in Tudor and a valuable contribution to the history of dance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Mille, Agnes. Dance to the Piper. New York: Little, Brown, 1952. The first volume of De Mille’s autobiography. Separate chapters on Marie Rambert, Tudor and Hugh Laing, and Martha Graham. De Mille’s brilliant writing makes this a classic of dance biography. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Speak to Me, Dance with Me. New York: Little, Brown, 1973. De Mille’s letters from her early career years in London. Gives accounts of several trips to the western United States (including one to work for her uncle, Cecil B. DeMille). Includes her time spent with Tudor, Laing, and Rambert and gives a good sense of the struggle experienced by the independent ballet artists of the 1930’s. Interesting “what became of” section of major figures mentioned in the book. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Carol. Ballet in Western Culture: A History of Its Origins and Evolution. New York: Routledge, 2002. A good starting place for any student of ballet. A readable history that traces ballet’s evolution from ancient Greece to modern the United States. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perlmutter, Donna. Shadowplay. New York: Viking Press, 1991. A complete biography of Tudor that follows his life and career in clear chronological sequence. Detailed descriptions of the creation of Tudor’s major ballets, with emphasis on their development as a reflection of Tudor’s life and relationships. Bibliography, source notes, choreographic chronology, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rambert, Marie. Quicksilver. London: Macmillan, 1972. Autobiography contains interesting accounts of Rambert’s childhood in Poland (then part of the Russian Empire), her work with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, her fostering of Tudor’s early career, and the evolution of Ballet Rambert. Factual rather than critical, with many anecdotes of theater and dance greats of the 1920’s through 1960’s. Index.

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Categories: History