NEW YORK — Eliot Feld began making dances while a soloist at American Ballet Theatre, making his choreographic debut in 1967 with "Harbinger," an instant triumph. He was 25.
Now, after 25 years of choreographing and nearly 50 years of living, Feld says he still isn't sure when he goes into the studio to choreograph a ballet that he'll actually end up with one. So when Feld began choreographing to Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs, it never occurred to him, he said, to seek the music rights.
"I never think I'll be able to do the ballet. Anyway, in 72 ballets, I never encountered any difficulty obtaining the rights," Feld said recently in his airy office overlooking Manhattan's SoHo district.
In this case, Feld's efforts resulted in a ballet, "Endsong," but the work is danced in silence. The current representative of Strauss' estate (the composer's namesake grandson) is distressed over what he sees as past misuses of Strauss compositions (including "Also sprach Zarathustra" for the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"). He says his grandfather's music should not be used for other than its intended purpose. Four Last Songs, in other words, was not written for a ballet and shouldn't be used for one.
Feld tried to change Strauss' mind, sending him a videotape of the ballet and speaking to him in Grunwald, Germany, by phone with an interpreter.
"He'd seen the videotape. He said he thought I was a great man, and I knew I was in trouble," Feld said, laughing, "because we all know what happens to great men, right? They get their reward in heaven. . . . He thought it would open the floodgates (for lesser ballets).
"I suggested that it doesn't seem to have fulfilled one's responsibility as trustee of the estate to lump the good with the bad, the washed with the unwashed," Feld said, leaning forward over his desk as he warmed to his argument.
"At one point, he launched into perfect English, which tempted me to give him my Carl Reiner German," the choreographer said with an impish grin.
In any event, the answer was still no, and it was two weeks before "Endsong" was to have its New York premiere. Feld decided the work would be performed in silence.
When he told the dancers, he recalled, "they were in such shock. Their love for the music is extraordinary. It's not the most elegant analogy, but it's like telling a swimmer, 'You have to swim without water.' "
Before the composer's grandson took control of the estate, Four Last Songs had been used by choreographers ranging from Maurice Bejart to Antony Tudor.
Feld said he'd been listening to the music with considerable awe for 30 years. "I just knew I wasn't ready to do this ballet. I thought this would be the last ballet I should do, and I would drop dead either the day before or the day after the premiere."
But one day last spring, the path he might choose for the music looked clearer to him, and, knowing he could work with dancer Lynn Aaron, who has been one of his principal sources of inspiration over the last several years, he told himself, "Do it."
Feld retains a shred of hope that eventually he'll be able to use the Strauss music. He gave one press showing, with the music, the afternoon before its premiere; his company's lawyer said it would be all right.
To hear Four Last Songs made it clear that something had been lost, but that night, as one watched "Endsong" danced in silence, it was equally obvious that something had been gained.
"It changes the experience of watching dance in some amazing way," Feld said, adding that dancer Aaron, who has the principal role, was most responsible for that change.
"She became more palpable, more vulnerable in a way," Feld mused of his muse. Listening to Aaron's breathing as she danced became for him "unbearably moving, indecently intimate." "Endsong," in silence, won noisy acclaim from a majority of the New York critics during the company's recent New York season and will be one of the ballets on view when Feld Ballets/NY performs Thursday through Saturday at UCLA's Royce Hall. It's the company's first Los Angeles visit in more than a decade. (The troupe will also visit Bridges Auditorium in Claremont next Sunday and San Diego's Spreckels Theatre on April 7-8.)
Like most choreographers, Feld doesn't like to talk about what his ballets are about; like most, he is willing to offer a few hints.
About "Endsong": "The seasons are a metaphor for life. Things have a burgeoning, an arc, and they vanish. True beauty is tragic," he said, quoting from Wallace Stevens: " 'Death is the mother of beauty.' You know it from 'Romeo and Juliet,' from 'Othello'; you know it from living," he said. Or maybe not, he amended, "since we go through life ignoring the thing which makes us feel the most, because sitting in front of the TV is easier and better." (Feld said he likes C-SPAN but never watches any of the networks.) "But it's not about any of those things," he said with a grin. "It's about steps."