Dancing with the Planets

In Alexei Ratmansky’s new Cinderella for the Australian Ballet, the heroine is taken to the ball by a rotation of planets.

The idea of cosmic companions opens up considerable scope for some fabulous costumes for Neptune, Mars and Jupiter that you can see in the video below. (The premiere is tonight, 17 September).

But the concept of balletic planets made me remember that Antony Tudor created a work inspired by Gustav Holst’s The Planets many decades ago.

Tudor’s The Planets premiered in 1934 at the Mercury Theatre in London where it was performed by Marie Rambert’s Ballet Club.

There’s a link to The Planets and the Australian Ballet as the founding artistic director of the company, Peggy van Praagh, danced in The Planets at its first performance.

Van Praagh was a big fan of Tudor’s and worked hard to bring the choreographer to Australia in 1969 where the Australian Ballet performed his Pillar of Fire and when he choreographed a new work on the company, The Divine Horseman.

Tudor’s The Planets, a work for 11 dancers, including Tudor himself, expressed the music for the planets Venus, Mars, Neptune, but Tudor also tried to create an atmosphere suggesting the planets’ nature or meaning. He seemed to have astrological ideas in mind.

For Mars, choreographed on Tudor’s life partner Hugh Laing, and reminiscent of the work of dance theatre choreographer Kurt Jooss, he created dynamic, fierce, aggressive movement, indicating that people born under this planet were destined to fight and destroy themselves (according to a synopsis on the Tudor Trust website).

The section, Neptune was made on Kyra Nijinksy, the daughter of Vaslav and Romola Nijinsky, while Maude Lloyd danced in the Venus section.

Five years after the premiere, Tudor added a fourth planet, Mercury in which Peggy van Praagh danced. (I’m not sure what role she took at the premiere).

Tudor’s works featured strongly in the repertoire of Ballet Rambert’s tour of Australia in 1947/49 with The Planets one of five ballets, the others being Dark Elegies, The Descent of Hebe, Jardin aux Lilas (The Lilac Garden) and Soiree Musicale.

On 15 March, 1948, the Sydney Morning Herald critic was impressed.

“On Saturday night the Ballet Rambert presented a satisfyingly varied repertoire, including two ballets new to Sydney and one that the company itself was doing for the first time.

“Antony Tudor’s The Planets, with which the programme opened, is danced to four of the movements from Gustav Holst’s suite, a powerful, ambitious, modern work, conceived on a somewhat remote intellectual plane, full of gigantic things, astronomical and dynamic. The dancing has caught the spirit of the music.

“Against a starry, solar backcloth, changing colour for each planet, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and Neptune, their satellites and a mortal who has been born under their sign, gyrate and contort themselves strangely, evoking their different moods of tenderness, violence, volatility, ecstasy, achieving now a flowing continuity of movement, now a keen beauty of line.

“Walter Gore and Paula Hinton were outstanding in Mars, John Gilpin brought a restrained brilliance to Mercury, Sally Gilmour a dream-like quality to Venus”.

Tudor’s 1969 visit to Australia was not quite the big occasion that van Praagh had imagined.

In Shadowplay, The Life of Antony Tudor, the author, Donna Perlmutter, wrote that Tudor and Laing, the Barbados-born dancer who accompanied him, treated their visit to Australia as a pleasant holiday rather than a memorable creative experience.

“They were far more fascinated by the country, its scenery, food and climate”, she wrote.

“The trip was a travel adventure for them. Hugh loved mimicking the Australian accent. And Tudor would constantly point out similarities to Hugh’s native island.

“These fruits are just like those in Barbados, aren’t they Hugh?”

The Divine Horseman, whose subject was voodoo and its setting the Caribbean, “came in for neither critical nor popular acclaim. Within a short time both it and Pillar, which the audience didn’t like either, disappeared from the [Australian Ballet] repertoire.

Tudor ballets did not return to the AB repertoire until 1990 when the company presented Gala Performance (choreographed in 1938) and Leaves are Fading (choreographed in 1975, and the second to last ballet Tudor created).

The American dance writer and critic, Joan Acocella, wrote in 2008:

“In a way, Tudor was left behind by history.

“In the nineteen-fifties, American dance went abstract, and abstraction was not his métier—he specialized in “psychological” story ballets. But many first-rate artists dry up after a decade or two.

“When, in his later years, an acquaintance ran into him on the street and asked when she could expect to see something new by him, he answered that, in order to make a ballet, ‘I have to have something to say, and for years I haven’t had anything to say’.”

Apart from Leaves are Fading and Jardin aux Lilas, Tudor ballets appear to have slipped out of fashion but Holst’s Planets are still having their moment in the spotlight.

In July this year, the New York Philharmonic presented The Planets – an HD Odyssey, a pairing of Holst’s orchestral suite with high-definition photographs, grainy video and computer-generated images of the solar system.

As The New York Times reported, “the fit of music and video is imprecise. Holst was not thinking of celestial orbs when he composed The Planets in 1914-16 but of the astrological deities for which they were named. (Pluto had not yet been discovered, let alone demoted.)

“Still, the combination works well, largely because of the many Hollywood composers who have subsequently mined The Planets for the raw material of myriad science-fiction film scores. John Williams in the “Star Wars” cycle; Jerry Goldsmith in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Alien; Michael Giacchino in the latest “Star Trek” franchise reboot.

“All these and more echo themes and textures that Holst conjured under the influence of Debussy, Stravinsky and Schoenberg”.

Could it be time for a dance reboot of The Planets?

Meanwhile, here are Cinderella and her Planets dancing to Prokofiev’s wonderful score.


  1. Adrian Ryan
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    A very interesting piece Valerie. I think “Pillar Of Fire” did return to the AB repertoire in 1983. We saw it in Melbourne on a triple bill [Suite Saint-Saens and The Concert were the other works] at the Palais. It was probably brought back by Marilyn Rowe when she was the interim director prior to Maina’s appointment. I remember being quite bowled over by Pillar Of Fire every time I saw it. A great pity Gala Performance gets revived by the AB and Pillar sits on the shelf. Several years ago Ken Russell did a film wherein he matched some extraordinary visuals to a performance of The Planets. It was broadcast here on SBS. Sounds like a forerunner to the N Y Phil event you mention.

  2. valerie
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 6:49 am | Permalink

    Thanks Adrian, it’s good to hear from you again. The last time I saw a Tudor ballet performed by the AB was Gala Performance in the Peggy! program in 2010 and sadly, I’ve never seen Pillar of Fire. I think Tudor’s The Planets would look very dated now but I’d still like to see it and probably never will. One of my most treasured old programs is the very colourful one for the Ballet Rambert’s 47/49 tour – really great illustrations and synopses of so many ballets choreographed by the Brits!

  3. Lee Christofis
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Hello Valerie
    I agree heartily with Adrian on this subject, and particularly his question about Pillar of Fire. I hesitate, though, to encourage any company to bring back a ballet that requires a ballerina with amazing actorliness to play the lead role of Hagar, to let herself become virtualy destroyed, and still come back to her senses with dignity in the face of a new, sincere love. Looking back at the early Gielgud years, I can only think of dancers like Fiona Tonkin, Vicki Attard, Ulrike Lytton and Miranda Coney as anyway capable to do it; Tonkin and Attard were exceptional as the marriageable sister in McMillan’s Las Hermanas, which requires similar emotion range and depth. In my view, it takes a very insightul actoryly director like Alexei Ratmansky to create such a highly articulated persona, quite different from the kinds of characters Graeme Murphy creates. I know this is all very debatable, but of the previous cluster of ballerinas, from Ross Stretton’s era, my choices would be Lisa Bolte, Justine Summers and Lynette Wills; more recently it would have to be Rachel Rawlin. These women had great stage lustre as well as great pathos sitting behind their ballerina poise and panache. More’s the point, there is no longer a tradition of this repertoire. Imagine too, as an offshoot for a moment, who would one expect to see were David McAllister to stage Bejart’s Songs of a Wayfarer, or the Webern Opus V duet? Some of the men could really pull it off technically, but it takes some of the tradition of the 1960-1970e ballet explosion – glamour, heart, soul and guts – that was risky and exciting. But for nostalgia’s sake, I wonder if you recall Kate Geldard playing Hagar in the very first Pillar season? I saw her more than once, and say now that I was bloody lucky to have discoverd Hagar through Kate.

  4. valerie
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    Lee, you’re right. Dancers with the dramatic skill to carry a one act narrative ballet are rare today. In my mind’s eye I often see Vicki Attard and Miranda Coney when others dance today in the roles those two once portrayed.
    I wonder if that’s partly because I saw some of those ballets for the first time in the 1990s and first impressions remain. I never saw Kate Geldard in Pillar of Fire but I remember that she’s said how Tudor was fierce in the way he drilled the dancers in that production (for their interpretation). It can’t have been a happy experience but it paid off.
    But the repertoire and fashions have changed so much that I can’t even imagine the Australian Ballet returning to one act narrative ballets.
    It will be interesting to see how the Manons and Des Grieux interpret their roles next year – that ballet is a huge challenge in the evolution of the characters throughout the whole ballet as we know.
    Just a final note, John Neumeier says Alina Cojocaru is the ultimate method dancer, that’s why she guests with his company so often. I wish there were more dancers with her ability to reach an audience as she does.

  5. Lee Christofis
    Posted September 17, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, a clarification is required here. I should have added that I’ve seen lots of other dancers not mentioned above give strong dramatic roles, Tatiana in Onegin, for instance or Manon. Those roles build over a three-act performance; Hagar has less than two minutes out of twenty-something to establish herself and convince us of who and what she is. The one-act narrative is the hardest one of all on dancers, unless they are just plain gifted actors as well as fine dancers.

  6. Adrian Ryan
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    At the risk of moving far away from Valerie’s “Planets” theme, I remember that in Melbourne in the 1983 revival of “Pillar Of Fire” I saw Michaela Kirkaldie and Lynette Mann dance Hagar. And I think Marilyn Rowe did it in Sydney that year. It was a bit too early for the dancers Lee nominates to take on the role. I agree totally with Lee about Rachel Rawlins. Her reading of Hanna in the last revival was a triumph of the qualities Lee is talking about. The season of “La Sylphide” just finished in Melbourne has shown that although all casts gave enormous pleasure in their dancing of the “Sylphide” role, the deeper interpretive aspects were a long way behind. I do except Juliet Burnett though, as she seemed to have thought deeply about the role and gave a very strong sense of a being from another world as well as a very individual way of phrasing her dance movements to the music. Beautiful open arms as well.

  7. valerie
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    Adrian, did you see Rachel Rawlins in Baynes’ Swan Lake? She was nominated for the Australian Dance Award this year for that performance and it was such a pity she did not win it. Other dancers nominated in the category were of course exceptional but their careers are continuing. Rawlins retired at the peak of her interpretive powers and her Odette was a heartbreaking interpretation.

  8. Adrian Ryan
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 1:54 am | Permalink

    Regrettably, Valerie, I believe that the Baynes’ “Swan Lake” Melbourne season did not field the Rachel Rawlins/Rudy Hawkes pairing. Melbourne saw 4 casts and I think Sydney saw 6 casts. I can well believe your description of her performances. You are so right about the changing fashions resulting in one act narrative ballets disappearing. Probably “Fall River Legend” under the Streeton regime was the last one to enter the rep. Of course we have had “Petrouchka” but that was a special case. The only one I can think of from David McAllister would be “The Display” revival and that seemed to go down like a lead balloon with both audiences and critics. Although from a Melbourne perspective, I have no idea what Bodytorque has been producing. Perhaps there are people exploring the genre in that forum.

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Antony Tudor as Neptune, 1934, photo, Angus McBean, © Harvard Theatre Collection

Antony Tudor as Neptune, 1934, photo, Angus McBean, © Harvard Theatre Collection

Luca Sbrizzi and Alexandra Kochis in Antony Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas (Lilac Garden), Pittsburg Ballet Theatre, photo © Rich Sofranko

Luca Sbrizzi and Alexandra Kochis in Antony Tudor’s Jardin Aux Lilas (Lilac Garden), Pittsburg Ballet Theatre, photo © Rich Sofranko

Antony Tudor,  photo © Kenn Duncan

Antony Tudor, photo © Kenn Duncan

Bramwell Tovey conducting the New York Philharmonic in Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite,The Planets, at Lincoln Centre, July 2013, photo © Ruby Washington

Bramwell Tovey conducting the New York Philharmonic in Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite,The Planets, at Lincoln Centre, July 2013, photo © Ruby Washington