While choreographer Antony Tudor will be forever identified with such probing psychological dance-dramas as "Pillar of Fire," "Dark Elegies" and "Jardin aux Lilas," Tudor did on occasion turn his deft hand to comedy.
One of his few comic ballets is "Gala Performance," which will be revived after an 18-year absence Dec. 11 during American Ballet Theatre's two-week run at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, beginning Tuesday.
Created in 1938, the satirical work depicts the rivalry among three ballerinas dancing on stage together for the first time.
The work is being staged for a new production by Sallie Wilson, an ABT principal dancer until 1979, who danced the role of the Russian ballerina and helped stage it in 1970. Assisting her is famed danseur Hugh Laing, Tudor's longtime companion, who was in the first London and American productions.
"One reason Mr. Tudor let it drop out of the repertory is that people began playing it too slapstick, and he didn't like that exaggeration," Wilson said in a recent phone interview from New York.
"They are not supposed to act funny on stage. The situation is funny. It gets laughs if you do it seriously."
Tudor's names for the three ballerinas should have given the joke away: the Daughter of Terpsichore from Paris, the Goddess of the Dance from Milan and the Queen of the Dance from Moscow.
But American audiences in the 1940s at first didn't get the joke. They thought the work was a loving reconstruction of the golden age of ballet and felt betrayed when they began to realize midway through that it was a satire.
"Tudor didn't (even) tell the ballerinas at first that it was funny," Wilson said.
"He wanted everyone to do their part seriously and not with the idea of getting laughs. The Italian ballerina got very upset because the audience laughed at her."
Tudor's comedy lay in playing with exaggerations of stereotypes, Wilson said.
"The French ballerina is very bubbly and full of love and wants everyone to love her. The Italian is very austere: By the purity of her dance, she is the goddess. So she doesn't sell anything to the audience. She allows the audience to look at her.
"The Russian wants to eat the audience alive--and the scenery."
Despite the fun, Wilson said the ballet is very difficult because "technically, (Tudor) had an enormous vocabulary, and used it."
"The corps has some of most difficult dancing in any ballet that uses a corps. Their steps are almost as hard as the ballerinas' to handle. Technically it's hard for everyone. They all have to work on it."
Yet because the corps members are given individual profiles, Wilson does not see "Gala" as that different from serious Tudor works.
"It's not a departure from his other works," Wilson said. "The character is in the steps. There is no other way of doing it. But it's a little more difficult to be funny, to be seriously funny, because it is very tempting to mug and make faces. Tudor wanted them to be real."
Right now, Wilson said, the ABT dancers are "excited and happy because it's challenging to everyone. They light up in rehearsal."
The work will be danced by Leslie Browne, Susan Jaffe and Alessandra Ferri, as the Russian, Italian and French, respectively. (Performances will be repeated on Dec. 12 and at the matinee on Dec. 13.)
Wilson, who worked with Tudor for 37 years, recalled the formidable impact the renowned choreographer made on her.
"He was incredible to work with in every way--terrifying, amusing, inspiring, you name all emotions in the spectrum," she said.
"He was a very deep man. He gave to his students so much. He encouraged you to dig and learn things. He was very, very inspiring, and he could turn around and be very difficult, as most geniuses can be.
"But what you got was worth any trouble. Anyone who worked with him was definitely touched by him."
Wilson has frequently assisted ABT restage "Jardin aux Lilas" and "Dark Elegies," as well as "Pillar of Fire," a ballet with which she was identified for more than 10 years.
But she finds today's dancers different from those of her day:
"They can show emotions less," she said.
"It is very strange. They are very inhibited about revealing emotions on stage. So they find Tudor's ballets difficult. That's why they have to work on them.
"(Tudor's ballets) are very different from the rest of the repertory, always. You go into your roles like studying a play: You learn who that person is and bring that out. It's not just a matter of steps. So it's harder for many dancers who are not in the habit of having to create a depth of character.
"Their training is just training for the body. That's what was marvelous about studying with Tudor," she recalled.
"He made you think and he made you search. He made you read books, see art, listen to music and think. It was much more than just training your legs. It was a complete education to study with Tudor."