Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ballets Russes

On Saturday night, Joshua and I went downtown to attend a performance of Boston Ballet.

In a way, the evening was a celebration for us, as it marked the end of Josh’s first year in law school.

The Boston Ballet program was a centennial tribute to Ballets Russes, founded 100 years ago by Sergei Diaghilev.

George Balanchine’s 1929 Expressionist masterpiece, “The Prodigal Son”, constituted the first part of the program. Although Balanchine choreographed for Ballets Russes only in the company’s very final years, he was the greatest of all choreographers who created dances for the company. Accordingly, it was fitting that “The Prodigal Son” be on the program—it probably is the single greatest ballet ever commissioned by Diaghilev and brought to life by Ballets Russes.

The second part of the program was devoted to two ballets created for Vaslav Nijinsky, who danced in their first productions: Mikhail Fokine’s 1911 “Spectre De La Rose” and Nijinsky’s own 1912 “Afternoon Of A Faun”.

By design, Josh and I skipped the third part of the program, which featured a performance of “The Rite Of Spring” to brand-new choreography by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo.

It would be inconceivable to omit music of Igor Stravinsky from a Ballets Russes tribute program, since Stravinsky was the greatest composer who wrote music for Ballets Russes. In the process, Stravinsky redefined what ballet music could and should be.

Nevertheless, Balanchine always said that “The Rite Of Spring” cannot and should not be danced—and, late in life, Stravinsky himself said much the same thing. I happen to agree.

The new Boston “Rite Of Spring” received blistering notices in the local and national press, so I suspect Josh and I did not miss out on much.

“The Prodigal Son” was the main feature for us. Josh had never seen “The Prodigal Son”, and I had very much wanted Josh to see Balanchine’s first great masterpiece. “The Prodigal Son” is perhaps the most overtly-dramatic work Balanchine was to create. If Balanchine had died immediately after completing the ballet at age 25, his name would nonetheless be remembered forever.

Josh was bowled over by “The Prodigal Son”. It was not at all what Josh had expected. Josh had previously experienced only plotless, Neo-Classical Balanchine ballets, and he had had no idea that Balanchine was also a master at creating story ballets. The drama and power of “The Prodigal Son” took Josh completely by surprise.

Almost every minute of “The Prodigal Son” is unforgettable; its images have become icons. The startling, angry, violent leaps at the beginning of the ballet, when the son demonstrates his restlessness and his bristling at his father’s authority, seize the audience’s attention immediately. The final leap takes the son over the fence of his father’s home and onto his journey in search of manhood.

The scene with The Goons is always unsettling. For me, it is the most disturbing part of the ballet. I gasped the first time I saw The Goons raise one end of the long table on which The Prodigal Son stands, causing him to slide to the floor.

The scene with The Siren is the heart and soul of the ballet. The steps Balanchine created for The Siren are among his most original and imaginative. When The Siren is done humiliating The Prodigal Son, there is nothing of him left—and nothing left for him to do but to crawl home.

I love the closing scene, perhaps the most powerful emotional moment in all of Balanchine: The Prodigal Son’s sisters see him approach the family home, and call their father, who comes forward and wraps The Prodigal Son in his cloak and takes him back into the home.

I was overwhelmed the first time I saw “The Prodigal Son”, and Josh was overwhelmed Saturday night. The ballet gave Josh an entirely new perspective on Balanchine.

The beauty of “The Prodigal Son” almost always comes across, even in a mediocre performance. Boston Ballet did well by the work, I thought, even though The Siren was not very threatening and The Prodigal Son not quite up to the full requirements of the role.

“Spectre De La Rose” and “Afternoon Of A Faun” do not have much dance interest, at least compared to the Balanchine masterpiece, and they seemed pretty thin after “The Prodigal Son”. I understand why these two ballets created sensations a century ago—the lead role in each ballet is tailored for a star who, through personal magnetism, can carry each ballet—but these ballets are curiosities now, no longer viable without overwhelming stage presences in the leads.

In general, I thought the performances were unobjectionable. The dancers had been meticulously rehearsed and had mastered the steps, although they hardly offered the last word in technique, style and characterization.

Given that Boston Ballet had completed a two-week run of the full-length “The Sleeping Beauty” only two weeks earlier (which Josh and I had missed owing to Josh’s study schedule), and given that the company had simultaneously been preparing a brand-new “Rite Of Spring”, it was a marvel that the dancing was as fine as it was on Saturday night.

It was a rewarding evening.

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