Monday, September 28, 2015

A Timeless Prodigal Son

PNB principal dancers James Moore and Laura Tisserand in George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son"
photo by Angela Sterling
I’m haunted by George Balanchine’s 1929 ballet “The Prodigal Son.”

I saw it this past weekend as part of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s season-opening program “See The Music,” and ever since I haven’t been able to get this dance-and its maker-out of my mind.

Serge Diaghilev commissioned the 20-something Balanchine to create “Prodigal Son” for Diaghilev's Paris-based émigré troupe, Ballets Russes. And the thing is, the dance is just so…Russian.

The cavorting mob of green-clad, bald goonies who first mock, then rob, the naïve boy (excellent PNB principal James Moore on opening night) and his two sidekicks (Kyle Davis and Price Suddarth), bounce across the stage on bent knees, arms extended to the sides and crooked upwards at the elbows. The movements are simultaneously stylized modernism and straight out of the Russian folk dance traditions.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian tradition, so the Biblical overtones of this ballet are secondary for me to the story of this rebellious young man and his collision with the world outside his loving home. At its heart is a tour de force interaction (pas de deux is too mild a phrase to describe it) between the prodigal youth and the Siren who lures him with her sexuality, then, like a cold-hearted predator, she consumes him, spitting out the boy's shattered dregs for her henchmen to pick clean.
Former PNB principal dancer Lucien Postelwaite and company members in "Prodigal Son"
photo by Angela Sterling

Moore skillfully evolves from the clenched-fisted youth who stomps and leaps, ultimately vaulting over the fence to freedom, to a besotted boy ripe for exploitation, to the penitent who drags himself back to his father’s warm embrace. It was great to see Moore back onstage after what seemed like an interminable injury-related hiatus.

Laura Tisserand danced the Siren on this program’s opening night. She is all impossibly long legs with an imperious demeanor. Tisserand traps Moore in her legs and arms, all but smothering him. It’s pretty amazing. But this beautiful dancer is almost too pretty for the role of a man eater. I wished for a little bad girl energy, a scintilla more of an edge. A quibble…

Beyond the choreography itself, “Prodigal Son” made me dream of Paris in the 1920’s. All that creative energy, and pre-Great Depression money to fund it! Artists from around the globe converged on the City of Light, collaborating, experimenting, stewing up ideas like this ballet. And Balanchine, in his mid-20's! I imagine him trying new things, discarding them, a young artist caught up in the fervor of the time and the place.

“The Prodigal Son” survived because Balanchine brought it with him to America. It’s lasted so many decades because great dancers can inhabit the roles Balanchine created and make them their own. James Moore can trace his performance to PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, who performed it at Balanchine’s own New York City Ballet, where Boal learned the role from Jerome Robbins, who learned it from the choreographer himself. 
PNB Artistic Director Peter Boal, coaching "Prodigal Son"

For me, "The Prodigal Son" is fresh, and in places, almost shocking in its sexuality. I try to imagine the 1929 audiences. Every generation has its cutting edge creators, like George Balanchine. It's wonderful to revisit their work and to recognize its genius.

Two other ballets share the bill with “Prodigal Son.” Neither wove the powerful spell that Balanchine cast. But, I have to shout out to PNB soloist Sarah Ricard Orza in Robbin’s own creation “The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody). Orza is a natural comedian, all the funnier because she is such a beautiful, graceful woman. Her turn in “The Concert” as a spirit as free as her flowing, curly hair, is one of the best performances I’ve seen her give at PNB.
Pacific Northwest Ballet dancers Ryan Cardea, Jerome Tisserand and wonderful Sarah Ricard Orza
in Jerome Robbin's "The Concert"

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