Dancing "Lilac Garden

November 28, 2001

The steps carry the meaning in Antony Tudor’s Lilac Garden, as in all of his ballets. To dance the choreography is to embody the drama. An arabesque can signify distress or hope, while a pirouette can signal desperation. Bourrées turning in place detail a heroine’s confusion. The changes of weight amplify the changes of emotion. And while the movement vocabulary is simple in its use of ballet steps and gestures, the choreography and layering of emotional content are dense.

“This ballet speaks to the heart,” says Donald Mahler, who has been setting Lilac Garden and other Tudor ballets for the Antony Tudor Trust since 1986. “It’s not a cerebral exercise. I think the whole ballet is about love—the denial of love, the giving of love and the hiding of love.”

“Every action and gesture has a meaning,” says Deanna Seay, a principal dancer with Miami City Ballet who was cast in the role of the mistress in that company’s recent production of Jardin aux Lilas, the French translation the choreographer preferred.

Based on the interactions of a quartet of emotionally intertwined people (as opposed to fairy-tale characters or mythological gods), this dramatic ballet of startling originality was choreographed by Tudor in 1936 for Ballet Rambert and had its première at the Mercury Theatre in London. Perfectly set to Ernest Chausson’s Poeme for violin and orchestra, the concise 20 minutes of choreography ingeniously reveal the inner lives of the guests at a pre-marriage garden party. What makes the ballet so universal is that, despite the late-Victorian setting and costumes, the life choices and dilemmas that the characters face are timeless and recognizable in the human condition around the world.

The ballet revolves around Caroline, a young woman who is about to be locked into a marriage of convenience with a suitor aptly called The Man She Must Marry. The marriage means that Caroline must end her affair with a handsome young cadet, Her Lover. The mistress of Caroline’s suitor, An Episode in His Past, is the fourth member of the quartet.

Former American Ballet Theatre soloist Lise Houlton, who was coached by Tudor, danced the role of Caroline in the late 1970s. “Working with Mr. Tudor was always a transformational experience,” says Houlton. She admits that Tudor could blurt out something profound or crass in the same sentence, but also remembers his insistence that, to fulfill her character, she must, “smell the lilacs.” “I can smell the lilacs, can’t you?” he would say to her.

“Mr. Tudor wanted you to let the movement speak for itself,” she continues. “He never talked to us about character or played the game of creating a drama. Like Shakespeare, it’s all in the text—it tells you what to do; it tells the audience what is happening. The clarity and power is right there in the movement.”

The ballet begins with Caroline, dressed in white with matching flowers in her hair, standing center stage with her fiancé, who keeps a watchful eye. As they exit, the mistress, in a slate blue dress, enters, looking for her former lover,

and is approached by several men. Caroline re-enters alone and to a mournful violin solo begins an extended, danced monologue.

“I feel like it is her frustration and anger at not being able to be with her lover and yet a frustration that she doesn’t want to feel this way about him anymore,” says Jennifer Kronenberg, MCB’s Caroline.  

According to former ABT ballerina Martine van Hamel, who made the role of the mistress a signature part, the success of the ballet rests on the timing of the entrances and exits. “The whole story is about not seeing someone and then seeing them,” says van Hamel. “The split-second timing is really crucial to make the story work. The whole cast has to be aware of when and where everybody goes on and off. If the timing isn’t there, it doesn’t work.”

For the performers in the ballet, the party onstage extends far beyond the wings, so that when anyone enters, they have come from a specific place with specific intentions. And the secret meetings are sometimes interrupted by the whirl of four waltzing party couples.

“You immediately have to set up the premise that you are coming to this party looking for your former lover,” says Seay. “You enter with a step, glissade, piqué attitude, plié. As you do this, you have to imagine that the audience is an extension of the garden. There is also a gesture with the arm—it moves softly across the body as if you are carrying a fan.”

In several sequences, Caroline has rapturous encounters with her lover. “The movement with the lover is so lusty and body-on-body,” says Houlton. “Mr. Tudor wanted it off-balance—never being on your axis. It was the complete opposite of the dignity and refinement of dancing with the husband-to-be.”

Caroline wants the young cadet. The mistress wants to thwart Caroline’s marriage. Caroline’s lover desperately wants to hold onto her. And the fiancé, who orchestrates the marriage, simply wants Caroline. (Interestingly, he’s the only character dressed in conventional street wear without ballet shoes, and he’s the only one who gets what he wants. Tudor himself originated the role.)

As the music approaches its crescendo—matched by Tudor’s cathartic rush of movement—the choreographer makes a bold decision: When Caroline swoons in the arms of her fiancé, he freezes the action in a tableau. Only Caroline then moves, as if in an out-of-body state, to reach for her lover, then returns to the swoon. The guests begin to move again and the four principal characters walk slowly forward in a line—one last meeting. Caroline then gestures to all the guests, the last longing reach of her hand to the lover cut short by her fiancé.

During the final chords of the music, the mistress suddenly turns on the arms of two men, as if to say, as Mahler puts it, “Tomorrow is another day.” For Caroline, the tragedy is deeper. “Mr. Tudor said that the ballet starts with the breath coming in and ends with Caroline’s exhale,” says Houlton. “So contained within that one breath is an entire experience of love lost to duty and inevitability. For me it always felt as if life was over at that point. Once the breath went out, there was a death.” The ballet ends with only Caroline’s lover onstage, his back turned to the audience.

“What Tudor wanted more than anything was truth,” says Mahler, who thinks the ballet has regained popularity in response to what he calls too much hyper-physical mumbo-jumbo in current choreography. “When a dancer does something that isn’t truthful, then it’s wrong. If it’s meaningful or truthful, then it’s right. He wanted people to be alive and real.”

Joseph Carman writes about the performing arts and is the author of Round About the Ballet.