NEA Arts Magazine

Tudor Revival

Boston Ballet Restages Dark Elegies


Four women on stage on their knees bending backward in supplication

Boston Ballet dancers perform Antony Tudor's Dark Elegies. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor

In 2008, the ballet world celebrated the centennial of the birth of Antony Tudor, one of the 20th century's foremost choreographers. Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen saw this anniversary as the perfect opportunity to introduce his dancers and his audience to Tudor's work, which had rarely been seen in Boston or performed by the company. Boston Ballet chose to present Dark Elegies, one of the choreographer's most well-known "psychological" ballets, a mode pioneered by Tudor and characterized by an emphasis on the exploration of the characters' emotions.

Nissinen credits the NEA's more than 20 years of support for Boston Ballet with alleviating budget constraints and helping the organization to present productions of the highest quality. When done correctly, Nissinen asserted, Dark Elegies can be an "emotional earthquake." In order to ensure artistic excellence, the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust provided Boston Ballet with not only permission to perform the ballet, but most importantly, the knowledge of Tudor expert Donald Mahler. Mahler worked with the company on everything from casting the ballet to teaching the choreography. Nissinen explained that Mahler's past experience working directly with Tudor made Mahler "intimately knowledgeable about the style and this particular ballet. First he sets the ballet and then he starts coaching the different casts so that the intent behind everything is correct. That way you control the integrity."

Nissinen also felt strongly that having live music was important to the production's aesthetic. Dark Elegies is set to Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). The company engaged local baritone Philip Lima to perform alongside the Boston Ballet Orchestra, a performance hailed by the Boston Globe as "impassioned, mellifluous."

Performed as part of a trio of ballets titled Three Masterpieces, Dark Elegies was bookended by George Balanchine's Concerto Barocco and Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room, ballets that both complemented and contrasted with Tudor's work. Nissinen said, "[Concerto Barocco has] a spiritual similarity [with Dark Elegies] and yet they're so contrasting. I felt it really cleansed the palate for the audience to receive Dark Elegies. . . . In the Upper Room is a contemporary, abstract, sort of triple espresso overdrive ballet. So you come from a calm, profound place to a dizzying environment."

Three Masterpieces ran for six performances March 15–18, 2008, and was attended by more than 9,000 people. The Boston Globe described Dark Elegies as the "quiet heart of the evening." The Globe's review also questioned why it had taken so long to bring the work to Boston, proving that Boston Ballet's efforts and thoughtfulness were not only appreciated, but also resulted in a performance that successfully embodied Tudor's original masterpiece.