Online, part of the Three Sides of Balanchine series
February 26, 2021
What a joy it was to revisit Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s second oldest work, the centenary of which is now remarkably just eight years away. It remains a masterpiece, a brilliant, quite innovative piece of dramatic storytelling through dance.
Prodigal Son was choreographed in 1929 for the Ballet Russes with a score commissioned from Prokofiev, who conducted the première. The role of the Son was created by Sergei Lifar and the Siren by Felia Doubrovska. Anton Dolin was also in the original production and the first performance took place in Paris in May in what turned out to be the last Ballet Russes season. Just twelve weeks later, Diaghilev would be dead.
Prokofiev disliked Balanchine’s choreography, his preconceptions being much less stylised, and he refused to pay Balanchine royalties. However, it is the very stylisation that paradoxically gives the ballet its freshness, and provides a direct reference to the pioneering work that Nijinsky had begun with productions such as L’Après midi d’un faun in 1912 and Jeux a year later.
The inventiveness in Balanchine’s choreography seems to know no bounds. The Drinking Companions form a star shape, circling with one dancer in the centre in a “crab” position, arms and legs balancing on his colleagues’ thighs. As the Son has been smart enough to travel with his own servants and his own wine, he is ripe for fleecing. Balanchine also owes a debt to the great choreographer Igor Moiseyev. When the Drinking Companions form a line, it’s like watching one of Moiseyev’s ‘human machines’, arms pumping like pistons.
Strong and muscular, Daniel Ulbricht is a defiant Son who becomes genuinely intrigued by those he meets. When he jumps over the crossed legs of the servants, it’s like he’s entering a pact with the devil, his series of pirouettes corkscrewing lower and lower along with his morals.
Teresa Reichlen is a glamourous, icy cool Siren. When she bourrées on, she seems a little insecure with her long cloak and in her characterisation, although in the crab walk forward, her pointes dig into the stage like daggers. The famous Siren’s slide down the Son’s legs is sticky, not helped by Ulbricht’s stocky physique.
The Drinking Companions make much of hand-play, running rippling fingers up and down the drunken Son’s body to extract every shekel, and then form a creeping group like a colony of co-operative ants. Prokofiev’s score emphasises his drunken stupor, bass clarinets running up and down chromatically in accompaniment, flutes and piccolos in plaintiff agreement.
The spiky, yet melodic score also foretells the more familiar themes in the composer’s Romeo and Juliet. It also the basis of his Fourth Symphony written in the same year and revised in 1947.
When the callous Siren finally plucks the medallion hanging from the Son’s neck, Ulbricht, now near naked, is incredibly vulnerable. When he drags himself up, he is almost Christ-like in his abject pathos.
The final scene, the Son collapsing into his father’s arms having struggled home clad only in rags and self-pity in desperately poignant.
The performance is accompanied by a well worth watching discussion and coaching session featuring principal dancer Maria Kowroski, repertory director Lisa Jackson and corps de ballet dancer Christina Clark.
The Siren was Kowroski’s first principal role with the NYCB, for which she was coached by Karin von Aroldingen who had worked with Balanchine since 1962. She recalls that she inherited her first costume but then had one made for her. Unfortunately, immediately before the first performance in it, she discovered that the hooks attaching it to her costume had not been sewn on. Cue frantic stitching by her dresser. During another performance, she remembers how it was ripped as dancers stood on it in the wings, resulting in an entry with no cape and a ‘boat’ that had no sail!
Jackson explains that she tries to eliminate preconceived ideas of the Siren, allowing the dancers to interpret it in their own way. She says that, less is more with the role, all that is required being defined in the choreography. She goes on to elaborate that, even though Prodigal Son is a period piece, it needs to develop to serve a contemporary audience, but, frustratingly, she does not define how, neither does Kowroski elaborate how she matured into the role.
Here, Clark rehearses the entry with the cape with Kowroski. In addition to the many technical challenges presented by the choreography, dealing with the long, heavy cloak can clearly be the stuff of nightmares.
Clark works like a Trojan in the coaching session and we see the effort required to do the forwards crab, Clark’s legs visibly shaking and pointes wobbling as she battles with the technical demands and the stamina. After an initial trip on her cloak, she gradually masters the folds and pleats and, by the end of the brief session, is beginning to look rather accomplished indeed.
Prodigal Son is available on New York City Ballet’s YouTube channel until March 4, 2021.
Next in the Three Sides of Balanchine is Theme and Variations. A conversation and rehearsal session with NYCB principal dancers Andrew Veyette and Joseph Gordon available from March 2, is followed by a full performance available from March 4-11. Visit www.nycballet.com for details.