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Glen Tetley, 80; choreographer fused ballet and modern dance

February 02, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Glen Tetley, an acclaimed dancer and internationally celebrated choreographer who bridged the worlds of ballet and modern dance, has died. He was 80.

An American who achieved his greatest success as a freelance choreographer in Europe and Canada, Tetley succumbed to melanoma in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 26, a week before his 81st birthday.

Although Tetley began his professional career as a Broadway dancer, he soon became adept at both modern dance and ballet, performing leading roles in the Martha Graham Dance Company as well as the American Ballet Theatre -- arguably at the stylistic extremes of the art.

As a choreographer, he experimented with amalgamating those idioms, combining the weight and floor action of modern dance with the elongated line and aerial bravura of ballet.

It was a style that many of the greatest dancers of the age found irresistible. "Glen loves purity and form, but it comes from deep inside of you," according to Karen Kain, once Canada's most famous ballerina and now artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada. "When I finish one of his ballets, I always feel more like a real dancer," she told The Times in 1988. "I don't know how else to describe it."

"Glen is an extraordinary person to work for in the studio; extremely clear," wrote former Kirov Ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov in his book "Baryshnikov at Work." "He gave me enormous motivation. He exudes tremendous energy and high spirits and has a very contagious manner, an excitement, which is critical in the studio when you're learning a new work."

"I had never worked on this kind of modern choreography before," fellow Kirov Ballet defector Natalia Makarova said, writing about Tetley's "Le Sacre du Printemps" in her "Dance Autobiography."

" 'Sacre's' steps are exceedingly difficult, especially the contractions, and they are unusual for any classical dancer. It is a big technical challenge for the body to switch from pure academic patterns to the ultra-modern elements which dominate 'Le Sacre.' "

Tetley himself explained his fusion of ballet and modern dance as an act of love: "I am very moved by the brilliance, the lift, the drive, the lyricism of classical ballet," he said in an interview in John Percival's book "Experimental Dance." "I am equally moved by the whole dark spectrum of Graham's theater, world and technique. Perhaps it's too wide an embrace, but I wanted actively to embrace both of these worlds."

He was born Glenford Andrew Tetley Jr. on Feb. 3, 1926, in Cleveland and grew up in Wilkinsburg, Pa. A former choirboy and the great-grandson of a minister, he initially pursued pre-med studies at Franklin and Marshall College and New York University. "I had not seen dance. I didn't know dance existed," he told the Toronto Sun in 1994.

But he fell in love with the first ballet he saw -- Antony Tudor's "Romeo and Juliet" -- and after a stint in the Navy, he began studying ballet with Tudor and others in New York. He also studied with Graham and fellow modern dance pioneer Hanya Holm, dancing in the Broadway shows that Holm choreographed, including "Kiss Me Kate."

Tetley also danced for Jerome Robbins -- in Broadway musicals and ballet projects. "My desire was to be the best dancer in the world," he told The Times in 1990. "I wanted to be the dancer every choreographer wanted to work with."

His wish came true, because Tetley became one of the original members of the Joffrey Ballet in 1956, danced in Graham's company in 1958 while also performing with the American Ballet Theatre (until 1961), and from 1962 to 1969 directed his own contemporary ensemble, which folded because of financial problems.

One work that he choreographed for that company, "Pierrot Lunaire," attracted wide attention in the dance world, eventually becoming a vehicle for ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev as a guest artist with various companies and in his own ad hoc tours.

In 1964, Tetley began dancing and choreographing for Nederlands Dans Theater, becoming co-director of that company in 1969. He also served as artistic director of the Stuttgart Ballet from 1974 to 1976 and developed important relationships with London's Ballet Rambert and National Ballet of Canada, where he served as artistic associate in the late 1980s.

However, his most enduring contribution to dance was as guest choreographer for a number of major companies, notably (besides those previously mentioned) the American Ballet Theatre, England's Royal Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Australian Ballet, the Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Batsheva Dance Company of Israel, Deutsche Oper Am Rhein, the English National Ballet, the Norwegian National Ballet, the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and Italy's Aterballetto. He did his last choreography, "Lux in Tenebris," for the Houston Ballet in 1999.

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