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The Siren in Prodigal Son: Who are/were the best?

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The Autumn 2009 issue of DanceView includes Nancy Reynolds' fascinating account of a coaching session in which Yvonne Mounsey coaches Prodigal Son for the Balanchine Archive Project. Mounsey, still vital and elegant at 89, danced the Siren in Balanchine's 1950 revival of the piece for the new NYCB. She remembers just about everything about the part and can articulate it well.

There have been lots of Sirens over the years. Sometimes it seems as though, if you're tall, strong, have long legs, and can put on a blank face, you're hired.

I've seen a number of Sirens over the years. Patricia Neary, Suzanne Farrell, and Karen von Aroldingen are among those who had all the moves but, speaking for myself only, did not really mesmerize or terrify. Cynthia Gregory, in ABT's version, was probably the Siren who chilled me most. Deanna Seay of Miami City Ballet, generally thought of as an elegant and subdued dancer, was amazingly strong and cold, yet alluring.

Which Sirens, in your experience, were the best interpreters of the role? Which raises another question: what SHOULD the Siren be like?

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Perfect post idea, bart.

I thought Darci Kistler was great as the Siren back in the 80s, I thought she bristled with wicked energy. I like Von Aroldingen in the video with Baryshnikov because of the statuesque look she seemed able to achieve there. I also saw it several times at NYCB in the last few years, but can't even remember who did it. But young Kistler was good in this.

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Which Sirens, in your experience, were the best interpreters of the role? Which raises another question: what SHOULD the Siren be like?

Deanne Bergsma was seductive, totally in control, creating a powerfully sensuous and beautiful image. She remains my favourite Siren.

I should have loved to have seen Doubrovska as I do not think anyone could reproduce her intensely sophisticated appeal.

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I think of the Siren as sensual and alluring, but cold and calculating, rather than scary.

I remember a review that said Kistler danced it "like a young snake." I loved that image, and though it described her performance perfectly.

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Mounsey addresses that snake-like aspect in an interesting way:

The best-known verbal image likens the Siren to a snake; in Mounsey's view it is a snake that while admittedly distant and inhuman, coils and slithers boneless -- "that's where the softness comes in, and that's how Doubrovska coached me."

Mounsey cites to Doubrovska's own words in a post-coaching interview by dance writer Emily Hite:

"I think about a snake, which is not human, but which hypnotizes and bewitches. I used my eyes, and the movement comes from my stomach. I had to perform without any feeling, without any added chi chi."

Another interesting point in the article: the cape Costuming is not usually a part of the Balanchine Archive Project filmings. The cape, however, becomes, in Reynolds\' words, "part of the choreography -- a player in itself, so to speak -- so it must be used." It occurs to me the cape definitely assists in the creation of the serpentine illusion. I'll certainly be looking more carefully at how it is used, how it moves, in the future.

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I think of The Siren as coldhearted but warm blooded. She should be both emotionally remote and physically accessable. It seems like it would be a very challenging role to dance just right.

I never saw either, but I would have loved to have seen Martine VanHamel's Siren at ABT and Diana Adams interpretation at NYCB. Arlene Croce, in a review described the section where The Siren wraps the long red cape though her legs and tosses the end over her outstretched arm and comments that Martine did this bit looking like a bored, haughty Chanel model. :shake:

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I thought Helene Alexopolous at NYCB was a wonderful Siren- sexy and stealthy. I thought the worst Siren was Julie Kent at ABT.

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Another vote for Kistler: her performances also showed the youth's feeling of invincibility.

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I thought Helene Alexopolous at NYCB was a wonderful Siren- sexy and stealthy.

I loved alexopolous as well; i don't think NYCB has anyone doing it as well now. Kistler knows how to do it right but she can't do it physically anymore. She's still nice to see for the moments when technique is not so important. Reichlen is too nice and kowroski is too distant.

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This is unorthodox, but I like it when you get a sense from the Siren of the deadening routine of her seduction. "Prodigal Son" isn't "Judgment of Paris" but I think the Prodigal's naivete inflates the Siren in his eyes. He sees Cleopatra, we see a petty thief and con artist (albeit a beautiful one) I like it when we get a peek behind the curtain from the Siren that she has danced this dance . . .many . . . times . . .already.

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I was impressed with Arantxa Ochoa ( Pennsylvania Ballet ). Her interpretation was very controlled,seductive with a hint of evil. This is in no way an easy role- just working with the heavy cape is a challenge. I also would have loved to have seen Doubrovska in this role.

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I was impressed with Arantxa Ochoa ( Pennsylvania Ballet ). Her interpretation was very controlled,seductive with a hint of evil. This is in no way an easy role- just working with the heavy cape is a challenge. I also would have loved to have seen Doubrovska in this role.

I have no basis for comparison, since I have only seen the Joffrey's performance (in Chicago, March 2000), with Trinity Hamilton, but I thought she was amazing: she captures the inhuman, dissonantly angular, contorted strangeness of the role. I also felt that there was a real affinity between the Joffrey and the spirit of the Ballets Russes. Not a very rigorous observation, of course, since I've never seen the Ballets Russes, even on videotape. But I could, at least, imagine something of the sense of experiment, adventure, excitement, even outrage, that the audience of the Ballets Russes would have felt.

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I think of The Siren as coldhearted but warm blooded. She should be both emotionally remote and physically accessable. It seems like it would be a very challenging role to dance just right.

I never saw either, but I would have loved to have seen Martine VanHamel's Siren at ABT and Diana Adams interpretation at NYCB. Arlene Croce, in a review described the section where The Siren wraps the long red cape though her legs and tosses the end over her outstretched arm and comments that Martine did this bit looking like a bored, haughty Chanel model. :shake:

Villella says in his book that Adams as the Siren chilled him to the bone. With those legs I'm sure she was a very striking Siren.

Another interesting pairing to have seen would have been Robbins-Tallchief, photographed so well by George Platt Lynes. Tallchief says she wasn't tall enough and couldn't cope with the cape, and there is no reason to disbelieve her, but I would still be curious to see what she did with the role. Apparently there were some rocky moments on the first night ("Maria! For God's sake, sit on my head!") but both of them seem to have received intensive coaching from Balanchine.

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dirac, I wonder if hyperdog has any photos of Adams in the collection that is part of the estate of her daughter? I'll check tomorrow.

I've been thinking about Leigh's "unorthodox" suggestion:

He sees Cleopatra, we see a petty thief and con artist (albeit a beautiful one) I like it when we get a peek behind the curtain from the Siren that she has danced this dance . . .many . . . times . . .already.
This quality of routine is definitely from the moment the Siren enters to perform her dance. She doesn't even notice the Prodigal at first. Even after she targets him, she shows no particular interest until she sees (and caresses) his gold medallion.

What follows is a possible alternate interpretation of the Siren. It takes Leigh's idea as a starting point and is based on the Karen von Aroldingen/ Mikhail Baryshnikov performance on the Choreography by Balanchine. dvd.

Aroldingen's facial expression gives nothing away. Her eyes are dead. It is clear, however, that she suddenly SEES the Prodigal partying on the other side of the room. As soon as she sees him, she makes her move..

Something struck me in her performance that I'd never noticed before. After the revelers have turned the Prodigal upside down so that he gold falls to the ground, and after they have snatched it up, the Siren re-enters. She is held aloft by two men. When she is lowered to the ground she runs to the remaining bits of gold and snatches them up in both hands..

Now she comee alive. She darts her eyes quickly to the left and right (something right out of a silent film) as if checking that no one has observed her. This bit gold she won't share with her accomplices. She takes the money and runs off stage.

These few seconds are a sharp break fin the image she has been working to create during her performance in the tavern. The effect, if you look closely, is actually comic. The music -- rapid, light, staccato -- is in sharp contrast to the more serious, even plodding music associated with the suffering Prodigal. .

In an instant, this woman, is exposed as an accomplished con artist. A greedy opportunist. You see this also a bit later when she organizes what amounts to a quick escape from town, what you could probably called a "flit."

She orders them to stow the loot on their boat. All clamber aboard. The men start rowing. They raise the sail -- the Siren's cape -- and head for the next town. And the next Prodigal..

The banality of the Siren's story may actually make us feel more deeply the contrasting anguish of her victim.. For the Prodigal, his encounter with the Siren is the defining moment of his life. For her, ironically, it's just another day -- a particularly successful day, to be sure -- in a long series of con games.

As Leigh put it: "she has danced this dance .... many ... times ... already."

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I think of The Siren as coldhearted but warm blooded. She should be both emotionally remote and physically accessable.

Well, since people are coming up with scenarios, this begins to look that black-and-white 'good-and-evil' sort of business, and anyway that's what the Bible meant it to be. I think cold-hearted and cold-blooded would be about the same, and that I'd just agree that she was 'physically accessible' because she knew her profession, which is prostitution and then some, maybe. I don't care much for the story since it's so cut-and-dried that she's 'evil', when frankly, if the 'prodigal' was more savvy, he might have even gotten round to charming her into a working relationship, albeit not the societally sanctioned sort (it's been done before, think 'The Rake's Progress', but it wouldn't have to be as repulsive as all that Baba stuff.) We need her to be 'evil', so the Prodigal can 'fail', though, so she is. And although, if you want to talk about the siren having done this seduction time and time again, you could also see the prodigal as a hick who's out of his league. I mean, there would have been plenty of guys knew how to handle this dame, and probably had.

I prefer to just see the steps in this one, because the Siren's choreography is marvelously 'early mannequin', but I still manage to get touched when the father gathers up his 'forgiven sinner of a son'. Not that I don't 'sympathize' with the poor guy, just that I'm sure that, as 'con artist', Mme. La Sirene has suffered her share of failed seduction-thefts as well, now that we're getting it so down-to-earth. She'd have had some, uh, co-workers to deal with, and sometimes she'd have to share the loot, whether or not she ended up setting sail after that one. How was she going to get to re-do the scene if she split? In Corinth or something?

Did Farrell ever do the Siren? Because it occurs to me now she would have been stupendous in the role. The height and imperiousness would have all been things she'd have figured out how to use to extraordinary effect. With all that talk of being too tall for Baryshnikov, she would have been very effective with him in this.

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I should have loved to have seen Doubrovska as I do not think anyone could reproduce her intensely sophisticated appeal.

There is a wonderful scene of Doubrovska in her living room acting out the Siren part in Virginia Brooks' film "Felia Doubrosvska Remembered" (available at Amazon). First Doubrovska is sitting demurely on the sofa, with pillows neatly set up on point behind her as she tells stories about Diaghilew. Then suddenly, in the flash of a jump cut, she is kneeling on the floor showing how the part is done, touching the coffee table with her knees (her legs are too long for the alloted space) and grandly bending backwards as her little dog watches from the sofa.

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I still manage to get touched when the father gathers up his 'forgiven sinner of a son'.

:off topic: I do too, but I also wish Balanchine had hewed more closely to the actual parable there, and had had the Father run to meet his son. In terms of the original story and its message that's more dramatic. In terms of choreography, it's hard to imagine a more dramatic ending than what Balanchine has actually given us, and I wonder if that's why he gave us what he did, or if he was working from memory and forgot that detail in the written story.

Thanks for mentioning the Doubrovska film, Quiggin. That is a wonderful moment you describe.

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Has anyone seen the Choreography by Balanchine video recently? I'd love to hear what you think about it, especially since it is the single most watched performance of this work..

I was surprised to find Baryshnikov unconvincing, disappointing, like someone from another ballet. Was it that he is just too beautiful? Too innocent-looking? I don't know, but the anguish does not register or ring true for me.

Aroldingen has the height, angularity, and -- as I've said -- cheek bones for the Siren, but seems to be contriving her performance directly from a detailed set of detailed instructions about steps, positioning of arms and head, etc. There is little in the way of flow. I felt that I could see her thinking and preparing as she moves from one difficult pose or position to the next, especially during her dance and her seduction of the Prodigal.

The Revelers seem even more tentative, especially in closeup. However, they -- like Aroldingen -- become freer and more spontaneous towards the end.

Shaun O'Brien is the Father in this performance. He was such a marvelous character dancer that it's interesting to watch him so constricted by the conventions of the role. This Father -- posing as God the Father -- was stiff, grand, mechanical. I found myself thinking

Maybe Prodigal Son is one of those ballets that does not benefit from close scrutiny by the camera. Maybe you see it best from out in the theater, where a certain amount of detail may be lost lost but you can see and feel the larger picture.

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Aroldingen has the height, angularity, and -- as I've said -- cheek bones for the Siren, but seems to be contriving her performance directly from a detailed set of detailed instructions about steps, positioning of arms and head, etc. There is little in the way of flow from pose to pose. I felt that I could see her thinking and preparing as she moves from one difficult pose or position to the next, especially during her dance and her seduction of the Prodigal. It struck me as having the quality of a a rehearsal.

All that follows quite naturally from the character, as I see it. I wouldn't agree that it seems like a rehearsal, though, but rather a 'calculated performance', very professional, such as this kind of experienced 'private dancer' would excel in. 'Doesn't do' certain 'affectionate gestures', etc., just keeps to business. The calculation only seems to enhance that attitude.

I've seen it fairly recently, I still like Baryshnikov very much in it. I've never thought of him as all that beautiful in the general sense, although he does look exquisite in this video. I think that the more beautiful the Prodigal looks, at least if he's smallish like Baryshnikov, the more touching--rather difficult to see Marcelo Gomes doing this part, isn't it? It's hard to see him taken in by her. I found him very effective here, although in 2004 I like Peter Boal a lot too.

I ask again. Did Farrell ever do the Siren? If not, I don't know why not. She could have done an amazing Siren.

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I do too, but I also wish Balanchine had hewed more closely to the actual parable there, and had had the Father run to meet his son. In terms of the original story and its message that's more dramatic. In terms of choreography, it's hard to imagine a more dramatic ending than what Balanchine has actually given us, and I wonder if that's why he gave us what he did, or if he was working from memory and forgot that detail in the written story.

The ending bothers me too - so much, by now, that I feel I don't want to see the piece again. I read a book recently by a dancer whose name I regret I've temporarily forgotten who also wondered about it and asked Balanchine why he didn't have the father go to the boy, and he said 'No - is God - boy must come to him'. (Quoted from memory, almost certainly inaccurately.)

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Patrick, to answer your question: Farrell did dance the Siren, though you don't see her interpretation discussed much in articles about her.

I recall her performing with Villella, an unforgettable Prodigal. The height difference (as with Baryshnikov and Aroldingen) was effective. And so were Farrell's legs. I can't recall, however, anything standout about the interpretation. My only visual memory is of a quality which made those strange movements and poses flow almost naturally.

Farrell was especially close to Felia Dubrovska, the original Siren, so I assume they worked together on the role.

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the attached is a recently acquired New York City Ballet publicity photo of Yvonne Mounsey as the Siren in THE PRODIGAL SON (w/ a pub. date of 1961 stamped on the back, even though YM had by then - as of '58 - left NYCB. it would seem to be a copy-print of an original photo (no photographer credit is given) which seemingly had retouching on the make-up and the hair style.

re: Balanchine's ending and the timing etc., it's important to remember that his source was Pushkin's THE STATIONMASTER and that he told Villella to think 'icons' when trying to get a handle on the subject, etc.

in sum, Balanchine's PRODIGAL is a highly stylized (and likely deeply felt) Russian version of the parable, and not a Sunday School illustration of a simple Bible story.

post-848-061508900 1279042609_thumb.jpg

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Fab photo, best face I ever saw for the Siren, and would have been great for Sphinxes of all kinds. Totally spell-inducing.

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in a talk Millicent Hodson gave about her work on a staging based on Balanchine's 1925 version of LE CHANT DU ROSSIGNOL, she noted that the female figure of 'Death' originally performed by Lydia Sokolova, was recalled by Doubrovska, if mem. serves, to be a precursor of the Siren in PRODIGAL.

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I do too, but I also wish Balanchine had hewed more closely to the actual parable there, and had had the Father run to meet his son. In terms of the original story and its message that's more dramatic. In terms of choreography, it's hard to imagine a more dramatic ending than what Balanchine has actually given us, and I wonder if that's why he gave us what he did, or if he was working from memory and forgot that detail in the written story.

The ending bothers me too - so much, by now, that I feel I don't want to see the piece again. I read a book recently by a dancer whose name I regret I've temporarily forgotten who also wondered about it and asked Balanchine why he didn't have the father go to the boy, and he said 'No - is God - boy must come to him'. (Quoted from memory, almost certainly inaccurately.)

I think your quote is about right, Jane. I recollect reading that Balanchine said something like that to Robbins. I tend not to have a problem with Balanchine's ending myself, if only because where the original story was concerned I always thought the Good Son had a point. :)

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