By OBT Teaching Artist Brook Manning
Read OBT Historian Linda Besant’s introduction of Brook HERE.
THE STORY OF PRODIGAL SON
Find out more about the Celebrating Balanchine Program, running June 14th – 16th at the Keller Auditorium.
The story of the ballet is taken from the Biblical parable and transplanted to Russian soil. Boris Kochno, Diaghilev’s secretary and librettist, took certain liberties to heighten the themes of sin and forgiveness: two attentive sisters were substituted for the obedient son of the original story; how the Prodigal Son “wasted his substance with riotous living” was brought to the forefront by placing it in the present tense; and the story ends with the Son’s return to a grave patriarch (not the celebratory father in the original).
The Son, eager to leave home and break from family ties, must face his deeply religious father one last time. The music pounds with energy, as the resentful young rebel leaps with rage and pounds his fists in defiance. He is hungry for the freedom to experience what lies beyond the picket fence (a wonderful, transformative set piece: now a fence, soon to be a table, eventually a crucifix, then a boat and finally a fence again), his restlessness revealed in the force of his dancing. So emblazoned on the mind are the Son’s turns and leaps, that the after-images begin a thread of imagery that runs through the ballet. The confrontation ends with one final act: the Son takes his signature leap over the fence and strikes out and into the world, leaving home for what he believes to be the last time.
Travelling to “a far country”, the Son and his servants soon find themselves in the company of drinking companions – an anonymous brotherhood of identically bald roughnecks who resemble lower forms of life. (Balanchine referred to them as “blobs“ or “protoplasm”). They egg each other on in foolish, competitive games and stunts (juggling balls, creating a star formation that revolves as a living carousel, playing reckless forms of pat-a-cake and leapfrog). They move with primitive stomps that accentuate the downbeat, bullying each other and the Son whenever possible.
The goons’ leader, the Siren, enters wearing her remarkable costume. (Igor Stravinsky’s second wife, Vera, was called in to make the costumes, taking Rouault’s art as her springboard for design.) A tall headdress elongates her line and adds to her commanding presence onstage. She trails behind her nearly 13 feet of crimson velvet cape. She is like Cleopatra sailing down the Nile, her arms moving as oars, her cape trailing her like the wake of a boat. The water imagery will repeat and reveals part of her character; like a beautiful Madonna figure she is appealing to the Son. Alternately, her slow, off-balance leans demand space and the condescending accuracy of her positions epitomize her true nature.
As all the men watch, the Siren reveals her allure, manipulating her cape – there is a clear relationship here. It is not just a piece of material. It is her existence in so many forms – sometimes like a rope on a sailboat, sometimes like a snake shedding its skin and at one point she steps over it like an umbilical cord, then wraps it around herself like a diaper and eventually slings it over her arm and struts like a model. Later the cape covers her completely and resembles a huge drop of blood before the Son tears it off. The Siren is open-hipped, available and fully enjoying her position on top and the power that comes with it.
The onlookers have enjoyed the Siren’s show as much as she has. The Son’s servants, having had their share of drink, feed off of the atmosphere. With much muscle flexing and nose-to-nose challenging, the servants rumble to pounding tympani. Intoxication eventually takes over and the servants and goons rest, leaving the Son and the Siren to themselves.
The Son’s fists that once pounded in rage become two-dimensional, hieroglyphic-like open palms as the Son begins his approach of the Siren. When revisiting the ballet over three decades later Balanchine warned, “Don’t be a movie actor…You know, like icons. Byzantine icons.” The movement vocabulary for the Son, Siren and Father was founded on holy iconography: spread fingers become halos, fashion model arms echo the destroyer goddess Shiva’s angles, the Father’s stone-like movement all read clearly.
This same pas de deux becomes a rite of passage for the Son. He comes to his femme fatale with wide-eyed innocence, unarmed and defenseless. They manipulate each other; she weaving an inextricable web, he partnering her with his entire body. The challenge is both terrifying and appealing to the Son and he answers her call by diving headlong through her spread legs to raise her up, not touching her limbs, supporting her only with his upper back. Here Balanchine suggested the Siren pause, and “Enjoy a cigarette, dear.” Her condescending demeanor unchanged, she then slides down his back, using him like a play toy. When she locks her leg around his waist and brings him into her he is converted. (Their height difference is emphasized here; the Siren on pointe and larger-than-life, the Son’s knees bent and back arched in awe.)
She enjoys her spoils, wrapping her entire body around him, cinching him closer with every notch in her belt. In a display of domination, she first spreads her legs then sits on the Prodigal’s head before standing on his knees as he lowers her like an elevator operator. She is matter-of-fact about all of her gestures. She has performed them before and she will do so again. At the finish they are entwined, legs wrapped in a swastika position, her one hand cradling his head to her breast like a mother, the other rising behind her head like a snake out of its basket, eventually opening into the signature splayed-fingered halo above her head.
The destruction is nearly complete. The Siren’s acts are so exaggeratedly raw (recall Rouault’s sets) that they become stupefying. He is lost in her and she is no longer a mother figure. The Son is drunk with wine and experience and the drinking companions-turned-thugs pound the table (the picket fence set piece has been inverted, now strongly resembling the table of The Last Supper) with their fists like enthusiasts in a Roman amphitheater. Their heads appear decapitated as their bodies crouch low and hidden. They make disorienting, windshield wiper-like movements.
In one last-ditch effort to save himself the Son runs up the table as the goons lift one end. At the top of the 12-foot table, the Son cries out for help, only to find the incline too great. He slides down on his back and into a heap on the floor, where the Siren claims him as her trophy. The Son is thrown against the tipped table, which is now upright like a pillar. Exhausted and pinned against the board, he is quickly swarmed by 80 creepy-crawly fingers that run over his body like so many cockroaches.
Initiating a violent robbery of the Son, his servants turn his body upside down and shake him for all he’s worth. The goons waste no time pushing for their place in the feeding frenzy that ensues, and the Son is quickly stripped of what remains of his worldly goods (even his shoes) by the Siren and her minions. The goons scramble across the stage, paired up: back-to-back, elbows locked. Their knees are wide open and deeply bent and they are high on their toes as they move away from the scene of the crime like scurrying crabs.
The Son’s nearly-naked figure and listless form call to mind Christ’s crucifixion. His body barely blows in the breeze, hand outstretched in supplication. Suddenly aware of the horrific consequences of his adventures, the Son embodies the extreme sensations of humiliation, regret and utter despair. As he sinks slowly to the ground, Balanchine said, “You have to move in this scene as if you are not moving. You have to make it seem like you are disappearing.” The Son’s only recourse is to drag his broken body and leave this horrific land.
Next we see that the goons have been turned into bacchanalian revelers, laurel-wreathed and gulping down jugs of wine. They are enjoying their plunder as the Siren signals to them that it’s time to leave. In order to do so they climb into that extraordinary set piece that was last a crucifix and transform it into a boat. The Siren arches her back and leans out as the figurehead of the sailing vessel while her goons paddle and play, paddle and play. Her cape waves back and forth as the sail for the raucous boat, and soon they head home and leave the stage.
Now we see the Son, his entire body supported only by a staff, facing the unthinkable: he must retrace his path on his epic journey home. Unable to support his weight on his feet, the Son has been forced to learn from the beginning again, like an infant finding the most efficient way of moving. His once exuberant choreography has been diminished to no steps at all, but the physical intensity is no less. As the sun rises on the picket fence of his home, the Son crosses the stage and falls with exhaustion three times (a reference to Christ’s three falls on the way to Calvary) before reaching his homeland.
Collapsed and barely living, the Son is found by his loving sisters, who frame him as if the subjects in an Italian Renaissance painting. They bring him gently across the threshold of the family land and lay him on the ground, palms up, in a gesture of complete submission. The Father has entered as if parting the Red Sea, but he can only sense his Son’s presence. (He has spent every day since his son’s departure looking for his return, staring into the distance and the sun, blinding himself.) The Son recognizes the change in his Father and in a moment of laser sharp focus, the two face each other once more.
Once the Father slowly reaches his hand out to his son it is clear that he will not reject him. But it is also clear that he will not move to help his son complete the penitential journey. Balanchine said, “Father does not move. He is like God. Boy must come to him.” This stern, Biblical patriarch stands waiting, motionless as the Son works his way forward, now on his knees, head bowed and back bent before falling at his father’s feet. The scene is simple and severe and beautiful as the Son climbs at last into the arms of his father, who cradles his boy and wraps him in his cloak in the final moment of the ballet.
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.
One thought on “The Grass is Not Always Greener: The Story of the Prodigal Son”
Thanks for providing such good research. My daughter and I attended the ballet last night and both agree that The Prodigal Son was our all-time favorite performance. The costumes, sets, music all blend so well with the powerful dance. We were awe-struck and hope to see this piece performed again.