Choreographer: Glen Tetley
Music: Francis Poulenc
Costumes and Set Design: Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Lighting: John B. Read
World Premiere: Stuttgart Ballet, December 22, 1973
PBT Performance Date: May 2001
Program Notes (May 2001)
By Carol Meeder, former Director of Arts Education
When Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr invited Glen Tetley to mount his productions of Voluntaries and The Rite of Spring for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, it marked a coming home for the choreographer. He has been anxiously awaiting the time when the premier ballet company of the hometown he knew as a boy would recognize his talent and fame by presenting his work. The time has arrived!
Voluntaries, choreographed to the Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Strings, and Timpani (1938) composed by Francis Poulenc, may well be the perfect work to introduce Glen Tetley into the fold of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Followed on the program by The Rite of Spring, PBT’s faithful Pittsburgh audience will be treated to an experience that extends through the breadth of Tetley’s choreographic language.
Glen Tetley was a student at Columbia Medical School when he attended a performance of Antony Tudor’s Romeo and Juliet performed by American Ballet Theatre. It was that evening that his life changed, and he knew he wanted to be a dancer. He transferred to NYU and began his training with modern dance pioneer Hanya Holm. His equally strong training in ballet came under Margaret Craske and Antony Tudor. Because these two different worlds of dance converged in Tetley’s experience so early and so continuously, it shaped his philosophy on dance and culminated in a new contemporary dance vocabulary that Tetley forged by fusing classical and modern techniques to create a new form of artistic expression. The fusion was intrinsic to him as he states; “I have always existed in both worlds and have never felt them to be anything, but one world.” His vision unfolded into an innovative and novel concept of movement vocabulary in the 1960s. Now the test of time has proved it to be the language of contemporary ballet. As his influence and technique affected the progress of the art of dance, he became known as both an intellectually and visually stimulating choreographer who communicated on both levels simultaneously.
Voluntaries exemplifies all of the choreographic and intellectual complexities of Glen Tetley’s style and technique in an intensely personal and emotional gift. It is a memorial tribute to John Cranko, well-known choreographer and long-time director of the Stuttgart Ballet. Tetley created it in 1973 after being invited to assume the directorship left vacant by Cranko’s untimely death. Voluntaries is a celebration of life and of dance.
It is important when embracing this ballet to consider the message of its title. “Voluntary” is a musical term signifying a free improvisation, usually on the organ or trumpet, for use in a religious service. Its Latin root means “to fly” or “to desire.” These very definitions are employed in Tetley’s style as he explores the themes of life, death, and resurrection of the spirit through dance images that soar before our eyes. Both the intellectual and visual pictures that this ballet presents to us may be interpreted and understood on different planes.
The impetus of the movement is taken from the chordal bursts and inertia of the organ’s melodies. From the silent beginning emerges the announcement of the physical metaphor. Writing in her autobiography, Natalia Makarova observes that, “The whole work is built by Tetley on one pose; a resilient cross of the outstretched arms with the belly drawn in and the head thrown back in a position imitating the Crucifixion.” As this image recurs throughout the piece it is linked by two types of emotional, choreographic declarations. There are phenomenal episodes of soaring bodies defying the earth’s gravitational pull that are driven by the winding melodies of the organ and propelling rhythms of the timpani. They are contrasted by the very personal, intimate moments of contemplation, reflection, and resignation which are musically carried by the more lyrical passages for the string orchestra, particularly in the pas de deux. The visual imagery of Voluntaries provides a distinct contrast to Tetley’s Rite of Spring, which is very rooted to the earth from which it struggles to burst forth.
The music for Voluntaries is a unique work of Poulenc that was written at a time in his life when he was moving away from the lighter more comedic compositions of his youth and into his more serious and religious adulthood. Yet in his exuberant melodic passages on the organ one can visualize the lighthearted, almost carnival-like Parisian theater of the 20s and 30s. As Glen Tetley accomplished a remarkable melding of classical and modern dance techniques in his contemporary language of dance, he also presents to his audience a complete fusion of music and choreography leaving no clear dividing line as to where one ends and the other begins.
To Glen Tetley, “Voluntaries is the way I feel about dance. To me, by its definition, classicism means purity, and I would like more than anything in the world to be a classicist in my own terms, not to imitate anyone else…I would love to think that I am not getting farther away from my source but closer to it.”