Dancing Voluntaries

Glen Tetley's masterwork is a transforming experience for dancers.
Published in the Dec 2006/Jan 2007 issue.

A stage is seldom thought to be a lonely place, but for me, the most alone I have ever felt was standing in place in semi-darkness, my forehead resting on my partner’s shoulder, waiting for the curtain to go up at the beginning of Glen Tetley’s Voluntaries. Ahead was an impossible task: to dance this beautiful, demanding and highly personal ballet fully and with honesty.

 

This year, companies around the world are dancing Voluntaries in celebration of Tetley’s 80th birthday (see box on page 61). In the 33 years since the ballet’s
première, it has struck a chord with critics and audiences alike, but it holds a special place in the hearts of dancers who have performed it because of what it teaches them.

 

Voluntaries is a challenge not because of its unique movement vocabulary, nor because the entire cast is costumed in unforgiving white unitards; it is challenging because in Voluntaries movement and meaning are one.

 

Created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1973 following the death of that company’s director, John Cranko, this 27-minute masterpiece for 17 dancers is an affirmation of life in the face of death. To dance it is to literally and metaphorically journey from a place of darkness to one of light. It is an amazing work to learn and a joy to
perform, but it does not come easily. For me, and the dancers with whom I spoke for this story, dancing Voluntaries was a transforming experience as much
for the insight Tetley brings to the art of dancing as for the choreography.

 

“It was devastating,” recalls Tetley about the time he spent in Stuttgart creating the ballet. Cranko had died suddenly, on a flight home with the company from a successful U.S. tour. “No one could talk about [the fact] that John, who had created this company, was suddenly missing. Yet he was there—everywhere—at the same time. That was inside all of us during the creation of Voluntaries.

 

Tetley’s answer to that devastation was to devise movement that seems to ask those who dance it to communicate transcendence by experiencing it. “When I was a dancer,” says Tetley, “I always wanted to be pushed to the limit—to the extremes.”

 

That is exactly what he asks his dancers to do in all of his ballets, but especially in Voluntaries. “I have to go physically into a work,” he says. “I want a deep physical reaction to the music.”

 

Actually, Voluntaries begins in silence. The curtain rises on the central couple alone on the stage. They move forward into the light; she turns, extends one leg in a long reaching breath, and then is lifted straight up, her arms circling, twisting from the center of her being, as the first chord of Francis Poulenc’s Concerto in G major for Organ, Strings and Timpani tears through the air—“like the voice of God,” says Tetley.

 

“It’s a very hard way to start a ballet,” says Sara Webb of Houston Ballet. She and Connor Walsh danced the central couple in that company’s première of Voluntaries in September. “You feel very exposed.”

 

Fortunately, the music carries you. Beginning with that first powerful organ chord, the score is also rich with moments of tender solemnity and soaring spirituality.

 

“For me, the organ music was very special,” says Maria Eichwald, who danced Voluntaries when it returned to Stuttgart Ballet’s repertoire in February for the celebration of Tetley’s 80th birthday. “I related to the ballet musically, mainly, and [then] through the music, emotionally.”

 

“This, for me, is a classical work,” says Tetley. “In my own definition, the word ‘classic’ means pure of its kind, and the work—the movement—has a purity.” 

 

Tetley likes to work with technically adept dancers and expects them to push themselves to move in ways they have never moved before, fusing the extended lines of classical ballet with the articulated torso of modern dance.

 

“The steps were not difficult, but they were different from the way of moving I am used [to] through my classical education,” says Eichwald. “We worked not so much with the legs, as is normal for classical ballet, but a lot with the whole body.”

 

It can be difficult for ballet dancers to incorporate the contractions and use of the breath that are so much a part of Tetley’s style. Voluntaries is tightly choreographed, but the movement should look as if it is coming out of the dancer.

 

“Glen loves that you use your back all the time,” says Augustus van Heerden, who, with Yvonne Hall, was half of the first-cast principal couple in Dance Theatre of Harlem’s production of Voluntaries. He has subsequently set the ballet for Tetley on companies around the globe. “Glen loves that the whole body is working. He’ll say, ‘Do it again. No, do it again; no, until you get it, and you actually feel what it is. He may verbalize some things, but some things he wants your body to learn so that it becomes part of the dance.”

 

Ballet dancers are trained to understand movement from how it looks, but Voluntaries forces you to realize that ballet is so much more than beautiful positions and well-executed steps.

 

Everyone who dances Voluntaries comments on how grueling it is. The rehearsal period was one of the most arduous I experienced as a dancer. I remember clearly the struggles my wonderful partners—first Lowell Smith, and then Eddie Shellman—and I had. Aside from building the stamina required to get through five pas de deux (the first one—a lesson in complete interdependence—consisting of almost seven minutes of overhead lifts, stage-covering runs, smoothly contained movement and suspensions that reach and fall), we labored to learn choreography in a vocabulary that threw into question my ability to dance, which, in turn, forced me to face what I meant by aspiring to be an artist.

 

“Glen said to me that you don’t learn how to be an artist. You become an artist by nourishing your soul and the spirit within you,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Patricia Barker. “If you will allow yourself to open up, it’s food.”

 

Though demanding, Tetley was supportive and inspiring in rehearsal. His faith in the work and what he sensed you could do as a dancer created an environment in which you could learn how to trust yourself, your partner, and most importantly, the choreography.

 

“When I first did Voluntaries, I was still very young,” says Barker, whose interpretation of Voluntaries is one of Tetley’s favorites. “In this ballet, Glen provided me with a real inner focus. It was the first time I had experienced such guidance. I was very step oriented, and it was a
difficult process for me. He made me very uncomfortable, but he was very honest and I truly trusted him. It was a real breakthrough for me, dancing this ballet and being able to work with him.”

 

Despite the movement’s fluid quality, it is very specific, as is the timing, though there is an organic quality to how it works.

 

“It’s never been about the steps,” says van Heerden. “It’s always about something. It’s not necessarily how you move your hands, but what the movement is supposed to mean, so there is leeway there. It is how the whole body moves for those movements that makes the image that he wants to see.”

 

In the process of rehearsal, we learned that, by doing the movement fully, the emotion is conveyed; there was no need to dramatize it or “perform” it, as in the woman’s soliloquy at the end of the ballet.

 

“Everything from that point always balances the pull between this thing that you can no longer touch, but that you are still reaching for,” says Tetley to describe what is happing in the solo. “The movement—all the balances—are done with this [idea], not as a finished point, but a pull between two.”

 

That tension made the end of Voluntaries as sublime as the beginning was terrifying. Transcendence is at hand, but there is still a price to be paid.

 

“I found [the solo] the most difficult moment of the entire ballet,” says Barker. “It’s not that technical, but it was the first time I wasn’t being touched onstage. No one was helping me come out of a step or guiding me or had a hand on me. It was complete vulnerability.”

 

There it is, the loneliness of loss—learning how to exist on your own. At the end of that solo, the woman walks forward into her partner’s hands, and in the next moment she is soaring high above the stage in an overhead lift.

 

That moment was always completely miraculous to me—suddenly I was flying. Of course, there were mechanical things that my partner and I did to make that long mid-air suspension possible, but who was thinking mechanics? Tetley set the wheel in motion for us to fly, and we did.

 

Voluntaries remains a celebrated ballet. Each generation of dancers that has tackled its complexities comes away from it with a heightened understanding of what it is to dance. But ballets are not produced for the dancers. Voluntaries speaks to audiences as well. It was made in response to a great loss, and that is something that is universal.

 

“Glen truly captured what it is like to mourn,” says Webb. “When we had a performance on September 10, I really did feel like I was reaching toward all of those people who died on September 11,” says Webb. “Other nights I felt like I was just reaching for soldiers that had died that my husband knew when he was in Iraq. I was just reaching for somebody that I couldn’t touch, that I wished was there but wasn’t.”