Before virtually every record company featured it on a "Greatest Baroque Hits" album and before the TV ad agencies for airlines and appliances got hold of it, the tender little tune known as Pachelbel's Canon in D languished in near obscurity.
Not for Antony Tudor, though. Back in 1971 the British-born choreographer set a dance, "Continuo," to the now-beloved score that singularly earned the early Baroque composer a name in the 20th Century.
And now the Los Angeles Chamber Ballet, in its performances at the John Anson Ford Theatre on Wednesday and Thursday, will present the seldom-performed "Continuo," along with other works.
The music, instantly recognizable to any audience, sweetens the pie, of course.
"But this experience--getting inside a Tudor ballet--has been a revelation for me," says company co-director Victoria Koenig, in a rehearsal break. "Just responding to the structure, content and craft of the piece has deepened me as a dancer. There are no empty steps or meaningless movements in his choreography. It has the edge of a knife blade--it cuts that close to truth as dance."
Koenig, recounting the Tudor lore as dispensed by her longtime mentor/teacher Carmelita Maracci, has worked toward this goal "since forever"--and for the same aesthetic reason that made Tudor and Maracci kindred spirits: Both belonged to the school of ballet as theater, not in the extrovert sense of lavish spectacle or physical feats, but in league with, say, Stanislavski or Antonin Artaud.
Yet the choice of "Continuo," which has no narrative plot or social context and thus is atypical for the man known as "the playwright of the dance," would seem an unexpected one.
"I deliberately avoided the celebrated Tudor ballets," Koenig says. "A masterpiece like 'Jardin aux Lilas' is no place to start--we have to get there gradually, it requires a special sensibility."
But her abiding interest in the current task has gained the dancer/director the promise of other Tudor works--and "in three or four years we'll be premiering in this country reconstructions of two ballets the choreographer made in London some 60 years ago."
The 1971 "Continuo," however, represents Tudor during his valedictory season at Juilliard, where for 20 years, along with Martha Graham, he taught such students as Paul Taylor and Pina Bausch. It came out of a period when the skittish choreographer had retreated from his eminent place at American Ballet Theatre and other such spotlit venues he came to detest.
Although he was dubbed "the conscience of the company" and brought ABT great acclaim with such ballets as "Pillar of Fire," Tudor could neither maintain his self-confidence there nor abide the political machinations that marked the high-profile troupe.
But he had a circle of devotees wherever he went--dancers who could count on winning a coveted role in one of his ballets as well as those who hung around on the outside chance of doing so. (Jerome Robbins belonged to the latter category.)
Airi Hynninen, a former Tudor student at Juilliard and a trusty \o7 regisseur \f7 of his ballets--here to mount "Continuo" with the 12-year-old L.A. Chamber--says she was "just one among the many who benefited" from Tudor's abandonment of the professional stage, pointing out that "he could always define the single challenge he wanted to give his dancers-in-training."
"In this case, developing the art of legato or moving seamlessly, flowingly, from one step or position to another. It's the hardest quality to achieve and comes only with experience. So it was brilliant of Tudor to make a ballet that's nothing but legato. It's an incredible primer."
Taking a cue from Pachelbel's sweetly celestial music, "Continuo" bears connotations of angels--every kind from Renaissance to Baroque. Unexpectedly, it also reveals the source of step-combinations that formed the basis of well-known Taylor works such as "Aureole."
But as Koenig points out, "There are infinite nuances in Tudor choreography. Even though this is an abstract piece, it's easy to spot the oblique suggestions of mood and manner," she says, getting up from her seat to demonstrate a slide-together step, complete with the minute rhythmic pauses and body positionings that insinuate a certain meaning.
A visitor to rehearsal can sense her loving commitment--and also appreciate the choreography's difficulty.
The dancers, culled from the San Francisco, Portland and Joffrey ballets, make no bones about the concentration required of them, and one wonders how lesser technicians could have mastered "Continuo."
"Even on the musical front," says Koenig, "the work shows Tudor's profound creativity. And in these days when everything about the way dance is prepared is necessarily quick and dirty, a ballet that demands integrity is rare. We're trying to get the fine distinctions that spell it out. Just last week (lead dancer) Helena Ross summed things up, saying: 'If we can see our "Continuo" rehearsal as a chess game, we have to conclude that Tudor is winning.'
"In the end," says Koenig, "every one of these dancers has had to put herself or himself against this classical form. It doesn't lie. And in an age of superficiality it does a soul good.
"The thrill for me is being able to give the company an opportunity I never had as a young dancer. Especially for Helena, who began in my class at age 9, it's a sign of progress and continuity."
\o7 Los Angeles Chamber Ballet performs 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. Tickets $20. Call (213) 466-1767.\f7