Serge Lifar and Michael Fodorov in Prodigal Son, 1929.
Serge Lifar and Michael Fodorov in George Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, 1929.
Linda Besant
OBT Dance Historian Linda Besant

Celebrating Balanchine is a spine-tingling program for me because I’m elated that OBT is adding Prodigal Son to our repertoire. Even though I’ve known the basic story all my life, and studied the ballet for years on video, the night I first saw it live in the theater will always be a highlight for this incurable balletomane.

Celebrating Balanchine also marks a personal milestone for me. Starting in July, I will shift my focus as a volunteer at OBT, where I have been “Historian and Lecturer” since 2004, away from speaking about ballet to concentrate on the company’s archive. This will be my final program as “lecturer.” For the next couple of years, I will concentrate on being the “historian.” By OBT’s 25th anniversary, several additional willing volunteers and I hope to finish organizing and preserving the first quarter-century of the company’s history.

With great pleasure, I am passing the OBT microphone to Brook Manning. It might have been heartbreaking for me to let go of the privilege of speaking to OBT’s audiences at Performance Perspectives and Studio Rehearsals; but Brook is so thrilled to have this opportunity to share her love of ballet, and, as a retired dancer with a deep education in performance, she’s well qualified. The transition feels perfect.

Meet Brook here, in this blog, as she tells us about Prodigal Son. And join us for Performance Perspectives, one hour before Celebrating Balanchine, where Brook and I will share the presentation so you can meet her in person.

 The Creation of a World Premiere

By Brook Manning

OBT Teaching Artist Brook Manning.
OBT Teaching Artist Brook Manning.

About OBT Teaching Artist Brook Manning – Brook began her dance career with Los Angeles Ballet, training with John Clifford and Irina Kosmovska and performing with the company in Petipa and Fokine ballets.  She performed for many years as a soloist with Palos Verdes Ballet and danced solo roles in the works of Donald Hewitt and Arturo Fernandez. Brook was awarded a scholarship for excellence in dance from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and earned her Master’s Degree in Performance Studies.  She has taught ballet at Bates College, University of Hawaii and Portland Community College.  Brook has travelled to 25 countries in order to experience dance and theatre in its cultural context. As a Teaching Artist at OBT Brook has particularly enjoyed teaching and talking about dance and its history with seniors through OBT’s “Community Connections” program. She also documents and evaluates the Education/Outreach programs in schools in the Portland area and beyond.

Prodigal Son stands tall as a singular masterpiece in ballet’s extraordinary modern epoch.  Sixteen dancers, an engulfing score, resonant sets and rich costumes all combine to create a tour de force.  It is a ballet of conversions of many kinds, all happening provocatively before your eyes, in this enthralling monument of 20th century art. Come see the company premiere of this masterwork being performed as part of OBT’s Celebrating Balanchine program, running June 14-16 at the Keller Auditorium.

The ballet is an example of Balanchine’s early years as a choreographer, time spent under the tutelage of Serge Diaghilev, impresario for the Ballets Russes.  For nearly two decades Diaghilev had proven his company to be a magnet for many of the vanguard of forward-thinking choreographers, composers and visual artists of the time.  Prodigal Son is a prime example of the aesthetic unity to which Diaghilev aspired in his productions.  The ballet’s synthesis of dance, music, drama and visual art create a true gesamtkunstwerk (each element sharing a relationship to the other):  Balanchine’s shapes and movement are directly related to the evocative clarity of Prokofiev’s score, both of which share an immediate relationship with the powerful, expressionistic sets of Georges Rouault, with their bold, black lines and vibrant use of color.  Balanchine soon moved away from the expressionistic style that marks this ballet, underlining the work’s unique position in his canon.

Serge Lifar and Felia Doubrovska in Prodigal Son, 1929.
Serge Lifar and Felia Doubrovska in Prodigal Son, 1929.

On May 21st, 1929, Felia Doubrovska and Serge Lifar took to the stage of the Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt in Paris for the premiere of Prodigal Son.  Balanchine, aged 25 at the time, stood in the wings and watched his creation come to life in what was to be the Ballets Russes’s final season.  (Diaghilev died three months later and the company was disbanded.)  Doubrovska was tall and commanding.  Lifar felt so close to the part that he believed he had created the ballet.  Sergei Prokofiev had composed Le Fils Prodigue, Op. 46 and was shocked when he saw the ballet in final rehearsals.  He had imagined a more realistic production with a far more reserved enchantress as the female lead.  With strongly different visions of the piece, Prokofiev refused to ever share royalties with Balanchine for his work.

Audience and critical response to the ballet were largely positive, but Diaghilev took it as an affront when some declared that the dancers had been reduced to “athletes”, and that the movement was “pure acrobatics.”   Critics argued that the work had distorted classical aesthetics to serve the company’s avant-garde purpose.  Diaghilev responded that the Ballets Russes wasn’t a classical company at all.  Their movement vocabulary didn’t claim its roots in the artifice of elite courts, rather it enjoyed the honesty of the living movement vocabularies found in Russian folk dances.  In an open letter to “The Times,” dated July, 1929, Diaghilev railed against the antiquated tricks of Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty:

Why have we got to take our inspiration from the minuet of the French Court and not from the Russian village festival?  That which appears to you acrobatic is a dilettantic (sic) terminology for our national dance step.  The mistake really, in fact, goes much deeper, because it is undoubtedly the Italian classical school which has introduced into the dance the acrobatic elements.  The coarsest acrobatic tricks are the toe-dancing, the “Doubles tours en l’air,” next to the classical “Pirouettes en dehors,” and the hateful 32 “Fouettés,” that is where acrobatics should be attacked.  In the plastic efforts of Balanchine, in The Prodigal Son, there are far less acrobatics than in the final classical Pas de deux of Aurora’s Wedding.

George Balanchine.  Photo by George Platt Lynes.
George Balanchine. Photo by George Platt Lynes.

Balanchine’s movement vocabulary in Prodigal Son integrates forms, drawing from natural and stylized gesture, plastique and folkloric gymnastics.  Balanchine drew on his exposure to the theatrical expressionism that was popular in Russia just after the turn of the century, when the spiritual awakening of the protagonist was communicated as feeling enclosed in form. Balanchine dissuaded the dancers from putting their own psychological interpretation on top of the movement.  He didn’t want the dancers to intellectualize and over-interpret the roles:  “Don’t talk.  Just do.”  The character was contained in the choreography and its relationship to the music.  The dancers were to distill the emotion in their bodies, thereby increasing the movement’s dramatic power.

The tremendous expressionistic sets of Georges Rouault echo this aesthetic.  The collaboration according to Balanchine:

Prokofiev came and wrote (the music).  When it was done, he presented it to (Diaghilev).  And Diaghilev asked me to (stage) it.  Then (Georges) Rouault came.  I (had) never seen him before.  Strange man.  He balanced chairs on his nose…during our rehearsals.  He was a little bit  — not crazy, but kind of a man of God.  He couldn’t do anything – costumes, scenery – nothing.  So Diaghilev locked the door (of his room), took the key, and said to him, “you’re not going to get out of here until you do something.”  He kept him there, supplied with food.  And finally Diaghilev opened (the door), and there was a pile of drawings.  Little things, like that window, stained – blue little things, red, black…So Diaghilev said, “What’s that for?” And Rouault says, “Do what you like with it.”…I don’t believe “(Rouault) ever saw the ballet.  As soon as he finished, he left.”

Georges Rouault at work in his studio.
Georges Rouault at work in his studio.

Counted among the most distinguished sets in dance history, Diaghilev had Rouault’s rough paintings enlarged to stage proportions.  The images projected striking colors between slashes of black.  They speak to the influence of Rouault’s teenage years, time spent restoring medieval, leaded stained glass.  The process of magnification exaggerated the irregularities inherent in painterly brush strokes and called attention to the spontaneity and immediacy of the creation process.  This raw energy is embodied by the Son, who bursts forth from his homeland like Rouault’s bold colors. For an intimate look at the product of this collaboration, check back soon for more rehearsal photos taken in studio.

Georges Rouault's set design for Scene 2 of Prodigal Son.
Georges Rouault’s set design for Scene 2 of Prodigal Son.

This ballet’s roles have been coveted and performed by some of the greatest dancers in ballet’s history:  Jerome Robbins and Maria Tallchief, Francisco Moncion and Yvonne Mounsey.  Edward Villella defined his career with this role and Mikhail Baryshnikov played the Son on television for PBS’s “Dance in America” program.  A thrilling company premiere for OBT, Prodigal Son will be performed as vibrant living history as our dancers take on the roles of a lifetime. Find out more about the Celebrating Balanchine Program, running June 14th – 16th at the Keller Auditorium.

0 thoughts on “The Creation of an Enthralling Monument of 20th Century Art

  1. This is absolutely fascinating history! I can’t wait to read it again and again! Thank you, Brook! Fabulous job!

  2. I enjoyed your thorough and very interesting article about ‘Rite’ . It clearly related so much of what it takes to craft and perpetuate a masterpiece. In doing so, it not only is informative to the general public but complete enough for dance history students or even to spur them on to further connections about the artists, choreographic development or this works place in history. Thank you for your own creativity.

  3. Thanks for shedding light on an early Balanchine work. Such an exciting and fascinating era. Well done!

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