Balanchine at the Crossroads
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