Balan­chine at the Cross­roads

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jennifer Ho­mans

Ge­orge Balan­chine could never quite let go of Prodi­gal Son. He made the bal­let in 1929 in Paris sev­eral years af­ter em­i­grat­ing from Soviet Rus­sia; he last worked on it in New York, a few years be­fore his death. Along the way, it died many deaths in his mind. He told Lin­coln Kirstein in 1933 that it was al­ready out­moded and that the fi­nal scene with the son “on his knees” crawl­ing to­ward his fa­ther was an “old trick” and would have to be rethought (it never was). In 1950 he re­vived the bal­let for Jerome Rob­bins largely in­tact, and a decade later he staged it again with Ed­ward Vil­lella in the lead role, although Vil­lella ad­mit­ted that Balan­chine’s heart didn’t seem in it. When Vil­lella later wanted to per­form the dance with an­other com­pany, Balan­chine said, “Oh no, dear, aw­ful bal­let, lousy, rot­ten. No good. I hate it. Old-fash­ioned. Ter­ri­ble bal­let. Don’t do it. Do some­thing else.” Still, in 1978 when Mikhail Barysh­nikov, re­cently de­fected from the USSR, briefly joined the New York City Bal­let, Balan­chine again reached for this old dance and gave the young dancer the Prodi­gal role. By then his health was frag­ile, and he noted with some re­lief that this time he would re­ally “never have to do this again” since for Misha he had fi­nally got­ten it right.

Prodi­gal Son was not even orig­i­nally Balan­chine’s idea. It be­gan with the Rus­sian im­pre­sario Sergei Di­aghilev in the late 1920s, at a mo­ment when his own health was de­clin­ing. He had de­vel­oped in­fec­tious boils on his skin, and this af­flic­tion, com­pounded by an on­go­ing strug­gle with di­a­betes, was mak­ing him feel old and be­sieged. Di­aghilev had founded the Bal­lets Russes in Paris in 1909 as a show­case of Rus­sian tal­ent and out­post of the avant­garde, but the up­heavals of World War I and the Bol­she­vik Revo­lu­tion were mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to im­port the Rus­sian artists who were the lifeblood of his en­ter­prise. With Stalin tak­ing con­trol, it was ever more dan­ger­ous to re­turn home, and re­ports about life in the USSR from flee­ing émi­grés and friends were grim. It didn’t help that Di­aghilev had learned that his half-brother in Len­ingrad had been ar­rested by the po­lice and dis­ap­peared. When he tried to in­ves­ti­gate, his in­quiries through the French author­i­ties were met by the So­vi­ets with stony si­lence.

All of this was mak­ing Di­aghilev a haunted man. Rus­sia was con­stantly on his mind. He col­lected Rus­sian icons, books, and manuscripts with grow­ing fer­vor, scav­eng­ing through book­stores and shops for pre­cious ob­jects from the pre-Bol­she­vik past. As it be­came clear that Im­pe­rial Rus­sia was gone for­ever, he turned like many in the Parisian émi­gré com­mu­nity of “Rus­sia Abroad” in­creas­ingly to the Church, and his Ortho­dox faith in­ten­si­fied. Pro­fes­sion­ally, he kept try­ing against all odds to build ties with Soviet artists back home. He was in touch with V. Mey­er­hold and wanted to present a joint sea­son with the Moscow Art The­ater. Above all, he was pour­ing him­self into a new bal­let with mu­sic by the cel­e­brated young Soviet com­poser Sergei Prokofiev: Prodi­gal Son.

Di­aghilev en­vi­sioned the ti­tle role of this new bal­let for his fa­vorite, Serge Li­far, a boy­ish Ukrainian dancer with a beau­ti­ful physique. He wanted Matisse (who was un­avail­able) to de­sign the sets, but set­tled for the French pain­ter Ge­orges Rouault, one of the few artists at the time work­ing on re­li­gious themes. Rouault had been shaped by a turn-of-the-cen­tury re­vival of Byzan­tine art and helped to re­store the me­dieval stained-glass win­dows at Chartres Cathe­dral. Icons and the black out­lines re­call­ing these win­dows found their way into the back­drops for Prodi­gal Son, fram­ing each scene like a liv­ing im­age in stained glass. Di­aghilev as­signed the dances to his young bal­let mas­ter, aged twenty-five: Ge­orge Balan­chine. Prokofiev was a big name in Rus­sian cir­cles and one of the few artists mov­ing suc­cess­fully be­tween the USSR and the West with­out yet com­mit­ting to ei­ther. He had re­cently com­posed for the Bal­lets Russes Le pas d’acier, a “Bol­she­vist” bal­let that sug­gested dancers wield­ing ham­mers and lad­ders, busily build­ing the new so­cial­ist par­adise. It was a sign that Prokofiev and Balan­chine were al­ready on op­pos­ing paths: Prokofiev would soon re­turn to the USSR and com­pose, among other works, pro­gram­matic mu­sic for lav­ishly pro­duced So­cial­ist Re­al­ist story-bal­lets un­der Stalin’s watch­ful eye. Balan­chine had re­cently made the pris­tine Apol­lon Musagète and would find his way to Amer­ica and ab­strac­tion. When they worked on Prodi­gal Son, they were odd bed­fel­lows in a project that, as it turned out, had the added poignancy of be­ing Di­aghilev’s last. The im­pre­sario would die un­ex­pect­edly of blood poi­son­ing a few months later in Venice, at the age of fifty-seven.


Son, Di­aghilev ex­plained ex­cit­edly to Prokofiev as they set to work, was to be the bib­li­cal story “trans­planted to Rus­sian soil.” The sce­nario, writ­ten by Boris Kochno and Di­aghilev, was based on the para­ble of the son who leaves home, squan­ders his in­her­i­tance, and re­turns ru­ined and re­pen­tant into his fa­ther’s wel­com­ing arms. But the bal­let was also in­flu­enced by Pushkin’s short story “The Sta­tion­mas­ter.” In this story, the sta­tion­mas­ter watches over a cross­roads. He is a guardian of tran­sience who sees peo­ple pass­ing through, never stay­ing, al­ways mov­ing on. There is only one set­tled fact in his life: a se­ries of paint­ings about the Prodi­gal Son hang­ing on the sta­tion wall. These paint­ings serve as a

back­drop for the sta­tion­mas­ter’s own failed search for his beloved prodi­gal daugh­ter, who has gone off with a hus­sar and fi­nally re­turns home af­ter her fa­ther’s death—too late. The reader is left with a feel­ing of bro­ken re­la­tions and missed peo­ple, of loss and ex­ile, this time with­out redemp­tion. For Di­aghilev and Kochno, the sta­tion­mas­ter’s weary story was a way to turn the bib­li­cal tale into a re­flec­tion on their own lost and ex­iled lives.

The sce­nario for this “Rus­sian” Prodi­gal was also cu­ri­ously trun­cated and re­vised. Un­like the bib­li­cal story it told of only one son, the prodi­gal. It com­pletely omit­ted the sec­ond half of the para­ble in which the “good” elder son re­sent­fully con­fronts his too for­giv­ing fa­ther, who has or­dered the sac­ri­fice of a fat­ted calf to cel­e­brate the re­turn of the sin­ful son be­cause he “was lost and has been found.” In­stead of this ag­grieved elder son, the bal­let gives us two ser­vants or (in later re­vivals) placid sis­ters, or­na­ments of a house­hold with no weight or right of in­her­i­tance. Fat­ted calf, feast, cel­e­bra­tion, fam­ily ten­sions are nowhere to be found. In ef­fect the bal­let leaves us stranded in the mid­dle of the story: the prodi­gal re­turns, but his home and his fu­ture are a blank. The bal­let also added the role of the se­duc­tress Siren—a pa­gan fig­ure ab­sent from the Gospel—who con­spires with a group of drunken goons to ruin the son, fi­nally bend­ing her body into the prow of a ship to carry him to his fi­nal fall from grace. This myth­i­cal sor­cer­ess, re­call­ing the jour­ney and temp­ta­tions of the ex­iled Odysseus, was orig­i­nally per­formed by

Felia Doubrovska, a glam­orous émi­gré dancer who had her­self es­caped Rus­sia on foot and skis from Len­ingrad over the Gulf of Fin­land.

Rouault, Prokofiev, and Balan­chine were of­ten out of touch or at odds as they put to­gether the bal­let. Prokofiev, who recorded the ex­pe­ri­ence in his diaries, worked closely with Di­aghilev on the score (and ded­i­cated it to the im­pre­sario), but he dis­liked Kochno and mostly ig­nored the sce­nario pre­sented to him. He found Rouault a strangely un­ap­proach­able,“toad-like” man who made “gloomy and un­ap­peal­ing” pic­tures. For his part, Rouault took the trou­ble of im­mers­ing him­self in the sup­ple­ness, or “plas­tique,” as he called it, of dance classes and Balan­chine’s re­hearsals for a month in Monte Carlo, but Balan­chine too found him elu­sive. When they were all fi­nally back in Paris for the stage re­hearsals, Prokofiev saw Balan­chine’s dances for the first time and was ap­palled. Nat­u­rally con­ser­va­tive and a prac­tic­ing Chris­tian Sci­en­tist, he found the eroti­cized steps for the Siren and the son “in­de­cent” and of­fen­sive in a Gospel story. He com­plained in­sis­tently to Di­aghilev, who stood by Balan­chine and told Prokofiev he knew noth­ing about dance and should be quiet.

The open­ing night was a glit­ter­ing so­ci­ety af­fair, with Prokofiev at the podium and Balan­chine in the wings shout­ing counts at the ner­vous dancers. But if the bal­let was well re­ceived by the pub­lic, Balan­chine and Prokofiev both left the ex­pe­ri­ence with bit­ter feel­ings about the pro­duc­tion and each other. Prokofiev dis­ap­proved not only of Balan­chine’s tawdry (he thought) and sex­u­al­ized Siren dances but also of the vul­gar de­pic­tion of the eerily bald, blue-green goons, who cor­rupt the son with drink and sex and steal ev­ery­thing he has, leav­ing him alone and nearly naked on the stage. Balan­chine later ex­plained that he had made the goons into sub­hu­man “pro­to­plasm,” with skit­ter­ing move­ments and sin­is­ter shaved heads: “There’s no sex to them, you know—they’re in­sects . . . dis­gust­ing look­ing.” Balan­chine was an­noyed at Prokofiev too: “[Prokofiev] wanted a real gar­den and real wine and real mus­taches and all that,” he later com­plained, “he wanted the Prodi­gal to look like Rigo­letto.”

Balan­chine’s dances were wild and dis­ori­ent­ing. He was deeply in­volved in Fu­tur­ism, Sur­re­al­ism, Ex­pres­sion­ism, and styles of avant-garde dance and art in in­ter­war Pet­ro­grad, Paris, and Weimar (“so Fritz Lang!” one dancer later said). Crit­ics noted the “in­hu­man con-

Ge­orge Balan­chine and Mikhail Barysh­nikov re­hears­ing Prodi­gal Son at the New York City Bal­let, 1979

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