The importance of Glen Tetley to the development of Rambert Dance Company. (Long read)

Choreographer Glen Tetley photographed in April 1965. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

In 1966, Norman Morrice became the new face of Ballet Rambert and set about implementing the many changes and new aims of the company. With Marie Rambert by his side, they worked towards her vision of emerging as an experimental company, creating modern works and collaborating with others. A key idea of theirs was to invite American choreographers in to choreograph for the company in order to expand the company members techniques and choreographic experiences. Glen Tetley was one of the first American choreographers to work for the company and he turned out to be an important influence on their development. In 1967 he mounted three existing works, including Pierrot Lunaire, and created Ziggurat. In 1968 he created Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain, followed by Rag Dances (1971) and later, The Tempest (1979) under the directorship of John Chesworth. Tetley is important because of the following reasons:

1. He contributed to moving Rambert into the modern dance arena.

2. He contributed to increasing the diversity of the audience members.

3. He challenged audiences perceptions of dance.

4. He developed the dance company members versatility and choreographic movement vocabulary.

These four key contributions to the development of Rambert were met in the following ways, and will be evidenced from Pierrot Lunaire (1967) and Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968).

He brought his sought-after dance style, a seamless blend of ballet and modern, which is exactly what the company was looking for at the time of the changes.

From 1966, Ballet Rambert focused on moving into the modern dance arena in order to experiment and remove themselves from the competition in the ballet world, which they had been losing for quite some time. Morrices time in America led him to study Graham technique, which he brought back to the company; their daily classes were now a combination of ballet and Graham. Glen Tetley had been taught by Martha Graham herself, and so his style was a distinct blend between her visceral style and the delicacy of ballet which allowed the company to utilise their new skills. We can evidence this in Pierrot Lunaire (1967) through Pierrot’s solo phrases e.g. as he reaches his right arm forwards he transitions into an arabesque with his left hand firmly holding onto the scaffolding and his upper spine slightly hyper-extending beyond the typical range seen in ballet. The reach in itself is expressive, representative of Graham’s style. A contraction of the torso initiates the extended leg to rotate in to parallel and he bends his knee, bringing it towards his torso before releasing it upwards into a soft, controlled fan kick. Later, he quickly développés his right leg in a turned-out position with his arms wildly swinging above his head; as he lowers the leg his torso follows as he curves his upper spine, transfers his weight, then développés the left leg. However, this time, he twists his torso towards the left leg which allows him to smoothly transition into parallel position as he steps the left leg down into a travelling sequence. The way he separates his torso from his hips and spirals the spine is reflective of the key principles of Graham technique. An example my students like to use from this work is when Columbine lifts her arms above her head in a loose parallel position, steps into an attitude position on a bent supporting leg and then heavily drops her arms down to flop sideways across her chest with broken wrists, reflecting the harsh angularity of Graham technique with the technicalities of ballet.

Furthermore, his work Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968) also captures this seamless blend when a female dancer travels forwards, stepping into an attitude position with the legs and hyper-extending the spine. Initiated by a contraction in the torso, the back leg transitions forward through parallel and the upper spine curves as she steps the leg down, immediately returning back to the attitude position on the opposite side. Her arms loosely follow a traditional oppositional position, but lack both the clarity and poise of ballet and strength and power of Graham.

Overall, the way in which his choreography blended the two styles allowed the dancers to develop their own capabilities and experiment with the choreographic possibilities that contemporary opened to them. In the early days, this dance style remained experimental and pulled them into the modern dance arena, whilst still capturing some elements of the familiar ballet style their audiences had known before, and therefore their audiences became much more diverse.

He brought other dance styles too which helped to further develop the dancers versatility as well as maintain the audiences interest.

Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968) is a good example of Tetley’s eclecticism, as the work stems from the philosophies of T’ai Chi and uses some principles from the seventeenth movement, also named Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain. The original movement explores the tiger, who is seen as both yin and yang, hard and soft, light and dark, moving and still. By embracing this, a person returns to mountain, which can represent peace and our true strength. Tetley did not try to present authentic T’ai Chi but used it as a base to create new vocabulary. In this piece, we observe the equally spaced out formation of the opening section as 10 dancers dégagé stage right then stand in a second parallel position, raising their arms above their head. The use of strict, measured space represents the typical way that T’ai Chi is practiced. Sliding into a deep second plié, the dancers are later seen softly swaying their arms side to side which can be directly observed in the seventeenth movement. The whole work has an element of contrast to it, as the dancers switch between chaotic, scrambling contact work and calm, structured angular gestures e.g. when a female dancer stands cupping her hands into a Yin/Yang symbol in front of her chest. Therefore we can certainly evidence the way that Tetley brought elements of T’ai Chi into this work in a more subtle way. The practice of T’ai Chi is now very commonly understood in the Western world, but we must consider that this was not the case in the late 60’s, and so Tetley brought something completely new and unexpected into contemporary dance which allowed him to experiment with his choreography and keep audiences interested.

Pierrot Lunaire (1967) incorporates the use of acrobatics and pedestrian gesture alongside his contemporary ballet style which provides the audiences with a sense of visual awe, humour and human understanding as Pierrot swings and crawls up and down the large scaffolding structure centre stage.

In the Commedia dell’arte, Pierrot was called the poet of acrobats… Pierrot Lunaire is a dreamer and a poet, a wistful and human clown, prey to the moods that swing swiftly from ecstasy to hysteria, ever victim of the conflict between the real and the ideal.’

Glen Tetley, Rambert.

Visually, these two additional styles portray Pierrot’s character very well and allows audiences to fully experience his childlike, foolish nature. The piece opens in dim lighting with a blue wash uncovering Pierrot as he swings bravely (or foolishly) on the very top bar of the tall metal scaffolding structure. His arms extend backwards and wrap around the bar and the dancer, Christopher Bruce, holds his weight this way as he presses his legs together and swings them backwards, building momentum as he swings backwards and forwards with his body held in a curved shape which resembles a crescent moon in the evening sky.

Later, he sits with his right leg crossed over his left, dangling between the bars, and yawns with a big stretch of the arms before shuffling down a level and hooking the bar behind his right knee. He bends backwards until he is upside down, then uses his arms to support his upper body as he hyper-extends his spine and looks forwards at the audience, with his left leg extended behind him which accentuates the curved shape (see image). He then swings down to the next bar, reaching his arm forwards towards the audience, before tumbling forwards around the bar to land softly on his knees on the ground. He explores the air in front of him with a curious wave of the hand and he follows the flow of his hands with his eyes. The whole sequence is slow, and sometimes awkward in its transitioning, which still evidences the acrobatic style whilst enhancing his foolish and childish character. The inclusion of pedestrian gesture further allows audiences to connect to his character on a deeper, more human level, as he later pines for the love of Columbine through expressive reaches and visceral contractions of the torso.

Christopher Bruce performing Pierrot Lunaire (1967)
Photo Credit: Screenshot from YouTube

The themes of his works were slightly more abstract than what the company was used to.

Ballet Rambert were a classical touring ballet company for the majority of the time pre-1966, and there were long seasons where they had no in-house choreographer, and no time to create new works. This meant that they fell back on performing the traditional and well-known works common in the ballet genre such as La Sylphide and Giselle. Audiences were familiar with these stories and followed the narrative style of the genre well. Post-1966, the company had reformed into a smaller, ensemble company and they worked on inviting both new and established choreographers to mount works on them, as well as developing their in-house talent. Tetley was part of this drastic change in the late 60s and his works offer a mix of subject matter and starting points which challenged the audiences intellectually.

Let’s start with Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968), because it is an interesting work with different layers of themes which can be difficult for students to analyse due to the lack of information out there. The work and its title is inspired by the Chinese calisthenics known as T’ai Chi Ch’uan, which is a type of martial arts often translated to ‘supreme ultimate boxing’ or ‘boundless fist’. There are thirty-seven movements of which ‘Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain’ is the seventeenth. These movements are non-aggressive and philosophically connect to the term yin and yang, which describe the perceived opposites in the world as we understand it: movement and stillness, soft and hard, light and dark etc. Tetley takes inspiration from this philosophy to develop new movement vocabulary. Bizarrely, this is not the only focus of the work. Tetley explores human relationships in an emotionless manner, stylising sexual encounters and playing with group sizes. “Sophisticated aliens would surely mate like this, all passion controlled…” (Parry, 2000) It examines the idea of men being in thrall to women and gender identity, whilst also suggesting that they are gender-less atoms in the science of mating. In the book Choreography Observed, Anderson has an interesting take on this:

…since he employs shadowboxing as his choreographic base Tetley introduces symbolic references to human combativeness. There’s a duet which begins with a man controlling a woman by guiding her every step, but which ends with the woman pushing him to the floor. And there’s another scene in which four men stalk about, as though in search of some prey – which turns out to be a woman who, though tossed around by the hunters, nevertheless gives the impression of being unconquerable.

Anderson, p.150 (1987)

The starting points of Tetley’s Pierrot Lunaire (1967) are the composition by Arnold Schoenberg, of the same name, and the three principle stock characters from commedia dell’arte (Italian theatre): Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin*. (Some resources note that the third character is in fact Brighella. The short clip I use to study this work does not introduce the third character, so I do not discuss this character.) The aural accompaniment is described in more detail later in this article, but it is important to understand that the score itself has been inspired by German poems from 1884 which are narrated on top of an orchestra. The music informs the structure and the themes of the work as follows:

  • Part 1 of the composition sings of love, sex and religion.
  • Part 2 of the composition sings of violence, crime and blasphemy.
  • Part 3 of the composition sings of Pierrots return home, with his past haunting him.

Stock characters are stereotypical fictional people, or types of people, which are seen in works of art such as novels, plays, films and literature, and are recognised by audiences as consistent figures. Pierrot is typically known as a sad clown who pines for the love of Columbine, who usually breaks his heart and leaves him for Harlequin. Pierrot’s character is foolish, childish, but trustworthy. He is seen as a loner and an observer, and is faithful to Columbine for whom he suffers eternally unrequited love. Columbine is often petite and pretty, and depicted as a Ladys’ maid. She is happy, carefree and affectionate but can be stern, down-to-earth, and self-educated. In theory, this work could be easily followed and understood by ballet audiences due to its narrative use of characters, similar to classical ballet. However, the aural accompaniment is what provides an experimental twist to this work.

The aural accompaniment he chose was modern to say the least.

One of the best pieces of evidence we can use for how Tetley pushed Rambert into the experimental, modern dance arena is the aural accompaniment he chose to use in his works.

Pierrot Lunaire (1967) is set to Arnold Schoenberg’s composition of the same name, which itself was inspired by a German translation of poems from 1884, written by the Belgian-French poet Albert-Giraud. These poems are narrated by a female Sprechstimme (German for “speech-singing”) and her voice changes in pace, pitch, and volume constantly, and often randomly – there is no sense of rhythm or melody. This is accompanied by an orchestra, consisting of piano, flute, clarinet and violin which again is played with drastic changes in pitch, volume and tone and sometimes they sound out of tune. The narrator and the instruments do not always complement each other which can cause chaos for the ears. I can only imagine that for those long-time Rambert fans who were not familiar with Arnold Schoenberg’s work, this score would have been a shock to the system. The accompaniment contributes to Ramberts increase in audiences, due to the collaboration and transition into the modern dance arena. Tetley’s experimental choices allowed Rambert to push the boundaries of contemporary dance and challenge their audiences artistically.

Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968) is accompanied by Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon (1967), which is a highly modern piece of music consisting of electronic, robotic and mechanical sounds which vary in pitch, pace and tone. It is repetitive and has a consistent melody underneath random “tinkles, plinks and pipings” (Brown, 2000), whistles, and other mechanical sounds such as the static noise you hear when trying to find a radio channel. Describing it can be a real challenge because it is unfamiliar and futuristic. The critics reviews are very mixed on this work, and we can assume that the audiences would have approached it with a level of uncertainty. The collaboration with Subotnick (and Nadine Baylis as designer) will have increased the diversity of the audience and challenged their perceptions of what dance is, and what dance could be.

His physical designs were minimal, yet revolutionary for the times.

Pre-1966, Rambert performed traditional ballets with detailed background designs and expensive costume choices, which proved to be too expensive to maintain as the company struggled for financial stability. Amongst the many changes of 1966, their approach to set design was also modernised, and Tetley offered them works which eased the financial pressure and interested modern audiences.

The minimalistic set in Pierrot Lunaire (1967) was designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian. It was performed on a bare, dark stage with a large, three-tiered, silver, metal scaffolding structure placed centre stage. This appears quite harsh in comparison to the pretty designs often seen in ballet. Lighting, designed by John B Read, is used throughout the piece to set time and mood; the opening section is a good example of this. The work starts in blackout and a dark blue spotlight focused on Pierrot at the top of the scaffolding gradually builds in brightness. This opening section starts with the Sprechstimme (German for “speech-singing”) of the poem Mondestrunken (Drunk with Moonlight), and so this lighting supports the aural accompaniment as it hints at nightfall. As described earlier, Pierrot is swinging on the bars creating a C shape with his body which resembles a crescent moon in the night sky. Combined with the twinkling melody, this sets a soft, dream-like mood and is effective in capturing the audiences attention through minimal, modern design.

Pierrot Lunaire (1967) only required 3 dancers rather than a large ensemble typical of ballets, and so the cost of costume was cheaper and this meant that other dancers in the company were free to work on other projects, yielding opportunities for the company to rehearse more than one work at a time, and for company members to work on their choreographic skills. The costumes in Pierrot Lunaire were fairly simple but effective in portraying the traditional stock characters as they wear modern versions of the traditional costumes often depicted by these characters in art and literature. The image portrays a classical example of Pierrot in the 18th century. In Tetley’s work, Pierrot wears 3/4 length white trousers which are fitted with slits at the knees for full mobility, on top of white tights and white ballet slippers. His top is fitted with 3/4 sleeves and it flares out from the waist. He wears a white structured hat which extends and curves upwards on each side, white face paint, eyeliner and red lipstick. The costumes used are not a drastic change in comparison to Ramberts earlier ballets due to focusing on classical stock characters, but the fit certainly has had an upgrade.

If you have been analysing Tetley’s Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain (1968) using the very short black and white clip on YouTube (click here), then it is difficult to see the set design and costumes. However, many of Ramberts resources and online critics have described the physical setting which allows us to piece them together, and you can see this in a more recent performance in the image below. The stage is bare with a translucent bluey/silvery setting and a mirror-like floor which was designed by Nadine Baylis. The back of the stage is hung with silk fabric in similar colours. The work has a futuristic and robotic feel to it which is highlighted by these cold, metal colours.

Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain, no date.
Photo Credit: Yvette McGreavy /ArenaPAL

The dancers are barefoot and wear body tights which are mainly orange in colour, but it has been performed in pink and yellow too, with material around the waist. Originally they were luminous, but the colours have been more muted in recent performances. The tight fit reveals the dancers every movement which is really beautiful as we observe their seamless transitions between extended ballet lines and harsher, expressive shapes influenced by Graham technique. A fun fact for you is that these costumes were made of Lycra, and it was in fact Nadine Baylis, alongside an American designer, who pioneered the use of this material for dance costumes. These costumes are highly modern, and a large step away from ballet tights, tutus and pointe shoes, which interested audiences and contributed towards moving the company into the modern dance arena. Furthermore, they make the dancers appear gender-less which supports the subject matter as Tetley explores human relationships and connections in a cold, scientific way e.g. it has been described as dancers being “paired off, mirroring each other like molecules multiplying into eternity” (Parry, 2000).

Tetley’s style has been dubbed as ‘non-stop propulsion’ meaning every work he created was completely new.

What we can clearly gather from the previous points is that Pierrot Lunaire and Embrace Tiger and Return to Mountain are completely different in theme, style, aural accompaniment and design, and this is important to consider because it means that he provided Ballet Ramberts audiences with variety. By performing a range of works which vary in style, Ballet Rambert were able to build their audiences and reach out to other arts communities through collaboration in aural accompaniment and set design. Not only did this allow them to increase ticket sales and gain financial stability, it meant that they were able to fully encapsulate the diversity of the modern/contemporary dance world.

Glen Tetley continued to challenge audiences perceptions of dance, push the boundaries of the art form, and support the company in meeting Marie’s original aims and ethos, which may be the most important contribution of all.


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