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.