Prodigal Son Returns
The Making of Balanchine's Pioneering Narrative Ballet
February 18, 2021,
In a letter to classical record label Vox Records, Balanchine wrote of Prodigal Son, "I think it is one of the best of all ballet libretti. It is simplicity itself, in the form of A-B and then A again. It is the story of someone who has everything, who throws it away to have nothing, and then has everything again.” Premiering in 1929 on the Ballets Russes, for which Balanchine was then both a dancer and choreographer at just 25 years old, Prodigal Son was the first significant narrative ballet of the Russian emigre’s career. Though in many ways distinctively of its time and original place, the ballet is today considered essential both within Balanchine’s oeuvre and the history of the art form itself.
Taken from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, as outlined by Balanchine above, is an oft-told tale of sin and redemption. A wealthy king has two sons: the elder, obedient and righteous; the younger, rebellious, rambunctious, and eager to experience the temptations of the world for himself. Upon venturing out, this latter son revels in licentiousness of all kinds, eventually losing all his money and dignity, both through his own greedy appetite and at the hands of the more guileful sinners he encounters. Forced to return penniless and thoroughly debased, he begs his father’s forgiveness; the king takes him in and celebrates his homecoming with a feast. To the elder son’s jealousy, the king responds, “You are ever with me, and all that I have is yours, but thy younger brother was lost and now he is found."
Serge Diaghilev’s selection of this material for a new Ballets Russes commission represented a rather significant departure. Though he'd staged a number of the major story ballets—The Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, etc.—these had fared relatively poorly with French audiences. The recent conclusions of the first world war and the Russian Revolution, among other historical developments, inspired a widespread excavation of meaning from artistic production, in favor of formal experimentation, pastiche, and other innovations—an “atmosphere of smart cynicism and delicious triviality” in Balanchine biographer Bernard Taper’s words. This coincided with an interest among choreographers to free ballet from its aristocratic trappings, often by incorporating elements of popular culture, acrobatic movements, an earthy eroticism, and folk and indigenous stylings, to bring the art form “to the people.” In such an environment, and with the Ballet Russes’ history, a bible story seemed an unlikely source for a new work, but refracted through the artists brought together for Prodigal Son’s creation, including the young Balanchine, Diaghilev’s apparent iconoclasm bore avant garde yet timeless fruit.
Diaghilev commissioned his secretary, steady collaborator, and occasional lover, Boris Kochno, to write the libretto. The resulting ballet jettisons some of the parable’s narrative elements (the elder brother, the concluding celebration, etc.), but it retains the general A-B-A structure, and the emotional valence and core lessons of its source. It has been said that Kochno’s inspiration came from the Pushkin story “The Stationmaster,” in which various scenes from the parable are captured in simple engravings on the wall of a station post in remote Russia, as noted by a passing traveler, who then witnesses a version of the tale unfolding between the stationmaster of the title and his daughter over the ensuing years. Thus, as Taper writes, it is a biblical story “seen through Russian eyes and filtered through Russian souls.” Though Kochno discredited this version of the libretto’s origins in a 1985 interview with New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff (and NYCB Co-Founder Lincoln Kirstein, in a 1971 souvenir program, actually attributes this history to the choreographer: “Balanchine recalled a peasant woodblock picture illustrating the biblical story with simple separate images”), Taper’s description still applies.
Sergei Prokofiev had already developed a name for himself among Modernist composers for his dissonant compositions and experimentations with polytonality—none of which had necessarily won over general audiences, said to proclaim following the premiere of his second piano concerto, among other insults, "The cats on the roof make better music!”—when he met Diaghilev in Paris. Despite a rather disappointing initial collaboration (notably, Diaghilev complained the music wasn’t “Russian” enough), the composer’s second work for the Ballets Russes, 1921’s The Buffoon, was a resounding success, with frequent Balanchine-collaborator Igor Stravinsky declaring it "the single piece of modern music he could listen to with pleasure.”
Prokofiev returned to Diaghilev for more work in 1929. According to Kochno, the aim of Prodigal Son was “accessibility”—to narrate a story simply and directly from the Bible, and to have the score “serve the cause of intelligibility.” The resulting music duly reflected a contemporaneous shift in Prokofiev’s compositional style to a more pared-down approach, and was warmly received by audience and fellow artists alike. Diaghilev is said to have remarked regarding the music accompanying the ballet’s final scene that Prokofiev had "never been more clear, more simple, more melodious, and more tender.”
Diaghilev commissioned the French artist Georges Rouault to design the scenery and costumes for Prodigal Son. Exhibiting alongside the Fauvists, Rouault’s reputation had blossomed in the late 1890s, and his works’ vibrant, often symbolic use of color, spontaneity, and less rigid focus on representational accuracy would further associate him with the Expressionists. Rouault’s work characteristically featured heavy black outlines, reflecting an early career as a stained glass artist, and intimating, perhaps, the religiosity that would come to rule his output. Rouault had become an ardent Catholic around the turn of the century, and his preferred subjects shifted from dark, critical portraits of unrepentant sinners to more explicit representations of religious material. The Parable of the Prodigal Son was therefore a natural subject for Rouault in 1929. The bold washes of color and stained glass-like patterns of Rouault’s designs were paralleled in Balanchine’s approach, but with a Russian flavor, as the choreographer describes: "In designing the choreography, I had in mind the Byzantine icons that are so familiar to all Russians.”
The remaining chapter in the creation of Prodigal Son, then, is the choreography, in which Balanchine developed a singular approach to narrative ballet that not only helped launch his international career, but marked a significant moment in the development of the art form itself. Following his classical training as a young dancer and iconoclastic choreographer in Russia, Balanchine’s brief but very busy five-year career with the Ballets Russes provided the choreographer with a succinct education in the various stages of evolution featured on Western ballet stages, performing a number of roles by Fokine, Massine, and Nijinska, all of whose work would come to influence his own choreographic development and increasingly unique voice. Though his previous commissions for Diaghilev achieved varying degrees of success, his initial landmark achievement with the Ballets Russes was 1928’s Apollo, his first of many collaborations with Stravinsky. Balanchine has related that Stravinsky’s bold, spare, yet richly lyrical score taught him the “most useful lesson of his career”: to “dare not to use all my ideas,” and to submit to the clarity of a particular type of movement or group of movements. While replete with classicism, it was yet a major milestone in the development of what would become Balanchine’s trademark neoclassicism.
That his second major success—and final work for Diaghilev—would come in the form of a story ballet based on a biblical parable, just one year later, is surprising, to say the least. The choreographic style here is strikingly different from that of Apollo, incorporating acrobatic leaps and postures, grotesque pantomime, and distinctly modernist styles of movement used to convey meaning, in keeping with the Expressionistic artwork the Rouault decor provided. Like Kochno’s libretto, Balanchine’s choreography adheres most to the parable’s symbolic elements: disobedience, profligacy, lust, prostration, and, ultimately, mercy. Tying these together is the unity of voice and choreographic idiom Balanchine had discovered via Apollo. The ballet’s narrative becomes a series of physical expressions within a shared bodily language progressing in time with Prokofiev’s score, rather than a naturalistic performance of a tale acted out by characters in period-appropriate costumes.
The role of the Prodigal Son was created on Serge Lifar, whose tempestuous relationship with Diaghilev enriched his performance of filial torment, according to the dancer’s recollections. The ballet’s “malevolent gymnastics,” in Taper’s description, keep the lead in fairly constant, demanding movement, all whilst conveying the parable’s emotional turbulence, resulting in a role of unique demands for a male dancer. Following Diaghilev’s death and the disbanding of the Ballets Russes mere months after Prodigal Son’s premiere, the ballet went unperformed until restaged on New York City Ballet in 1950, with Jerome Robbins as the Son. In a New York Times review of the revival, John Martin writes, “It is gauche and cruel, funny and naive, lascivious and tender, and its physical and mental energy, though not its skill and artistry, could scarcely belong to anyone but a young choreographer of 25.” Needless to say, the ballet has remained within the repertory since, with new dancers taking on its unparalleled physical and emotional demands—continuing the story of the Prodigal Son into today.
“I was extremely excited when I got called to my first rehearsal of Prodigal Son—I believe it was in 2008. I knew certain dance phrases or segments but not the depth the role required,” recalls Principal Dancer Daniel Ulbricht, a frequent interpreter of the role in recent years. “Over the course of performing the role, I had the opportunity to work with Edward Villella, who was the Prodigal Son for so many. Villella had wonderful insight, imagery, and specific details that helped me to create a more complete performance. I also called my former teacher and colleague, Peter Boal, who was generous and shared his experiences in the role with me. Both Peter and Edward were influential and helpful, providing the necessary context and detail that a young dancer like me needed to go from dancing a piece to performing a role. Since Prodigal entered NYCB’s repertory in 1950, I feel like part of a select group of dancers who are able to share in this masterpiece; what an honor.
“The ballet works in your favor,” Ulbricht continues. “You begin this 35-minute journey full of joy, energy, and freedom from the very first entrance. The first solo is exhilarating, and Balanchine pressure cooks the steps to illustrate the rebellion the Son feels in the first scene. As the piece progresses, you continue the arc of the story, navigating all of the technical and character nuances. About half-way through, there is less focus on technique and almost solely on character. There is a moment where the Son is all alone, leaning against the pillar, and as you begin to sink down, you start to feel the weight of this character who was spry just 15 minutes earlier.
“The Son feels shame, loss, remorse, and is just hoping to survive the choices he made on his way. Near the end of the piece, the most profound moment of the ballet happens. The Son crawls back to his Father, begging to be taken back into his arms. It is draining, emotional, and powerful. There aren’t words to describe the steps but you do feel a sense of relief, accomplishment, and gratitude for being able to be trusted to perform this gem of choreography.”
In the midst of this anti-hero’s journey, the Prodigal Son finds himself among a group of revelers or “Goons” whose animalistic movements and voracious behaviors simultaneously draw and repel their captive guest. Suddenly, a woman emerges, entering the stage en pointe, her hefty headdress and resplendent red cape crowning her seductive and dominating presence. This is The Siren, who performs an erotically charged solo, enticing the Son; Taper calls her an “expert seduction machine,” and Balanchine writes, in his Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, “She seems oblivious to the fact that she is being watched; this dance seems to please her more than it could please anyone else.” Achieving the desired effect, The Siren is joined by the Son, and they engage in an unprecedented pas de deux, including a “circus trick” in which The Siren wraps her body around the Son’s waist in a loop, slowly moving down his legs—”[One] of the most important seductions to be found on any modern stage,” per Agnes de Mille, writing in 1950.
“Preparing for The Siren is unlike [preparing for] any other role,” says Principal Dancer Teresa Reichlen, who has performed in the role for many years. “The makeup, hat, and cape make it feel so unique and add an extra, unusual set of challenges. Performing it onstage never feels the same as in the studio—it is impossible to replicate. For this reason, I feel like I am always hyper aware of all of the extra factors: is my hat on straight? Did my cape follow behind me as I hoped it would? Will the Goons catch me, and in what position? Besides all of that, it is still possible to lose yourself, especially in the pas de deux with the Son.
“The older I get, the more I feel that passing on Balanchine's legacy is about taking his steps and making them your own,” Reichlen adds. “Each person who has coached me in this role has had a different interpretation of it. One coach wanted it stony, with no emotion; another wanted me to be sensual and snakelike; and yet another wanted me to exude power and authority. Each time I approach the role I take into account all of these possibilities; so how I approach it differs from season to season, and even show to show.”
An ancient parable communicated in the language of modern artistry, performed by dancers whose careers began in the 19th, the mid-20th, and now the 21st Century: Prodigal Son represents a significant departure in the history of narrative dance-making, a seminal success in Balanchine’s early career, and an enduring ballet in the repertory. Thoroughly of its creators’ place and time, it is, undeniably, timeless.