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Prodigal Son -- 6/21-- NY City Ballet

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Just a super performance of this ballet tonight by Peter Boal and Helene Alexopolous, well supported also by Alex Ritter and Arch Higgins as the friends, and James Fayette as the impassive father. More detail dramatically than I've ever seen in it, and I've seen it many times. (For instance, isn't it odd that, in the last crawl home, the father doesn't go to his son, doesn't move or pick him up, until the final gesture of folding him in his cape?).

I'm so glad that Peter is performing this, after having not appeared in it for a few years, I think, and with Helene, this is a dream cast.

The orchestra, conducted by Hugo Fiorato, also played this better than I've heard them ever do it before and, with the performance given it tonight, I could see for the first time how beautifully Balanchine matched his choreography to the music, particularly in the evolutions of the gnomish bald troop of depraved creatures among whom the Prodigal experiences his fall. Previously I'd seen it as somewhat bufoonish, likening it in my own mind to the way Ben Stevenson treated Prokofiev in passages of his Cinderella. It's nothing like that actually, or rather, the difference is the Balanchine hit the mark. There is a inventive subtlety to the the movement palate here which is perfectly sensitive to the score (surely that is Balanchine's particular genius) and it required a fine performance to expose this.

The corps of City Ballet is looking very strog these past few weeks. It's a real peak for them.

I was less impressed with Wendy's Chaconne than others who have posted have been, but in that piece too I thought the corps now very much has the spirit of the ballet, in contrast to how it appeared at the end of last winter.

As for Harmonielehre, I was awake and riveted for a while for another fairly amazing performance by Janie Taylor (in the First Scene pdd -- if this pdd was made on her, as I think it was, it just reinforces my impression that Martins makes his most beautiful dances on her at the moment), then I pretty much dozed (for about half an hour unfortuntely) until the more or less beautiful part which Dale pointed out the other day where the white silk comes down from the ceiling, the barefoot girls come out, and Isabel Vondermuhl gets carried around by James Fayette. That's quite a beautiful scene. It's a pity you have to wade through so much monotony to get there.

[ 06-21-2001: Message edited by: Michael1 ]

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Thanks for this, Michael. I don't think it's odd that the Father makes the son crawl to him -- I think that makes the point that he has to be totally submissive, totally penitant before he can be forgiven and accepted back into the fold. Very Biblical :)

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And a very specific type of Biblical belief. Lincoln Kirstein describes a very interesting exchange between WH Auden and Balanchine on the very point you mention in the essay "A Ballet Master's Belief" in A Portrait of Mr. B Balanchine altered the parable in Luke (where the Father does come to the son) quite deliberately, preferring the rigor of the Old Testament to the mercy of the New.

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But on the other hand, how, short of dropping into a mime that occurs nowhere else in the ballet, does one communicate the Prodigal's words to his Father, "Father, I have sinned against you, and before God. I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your servants."?

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Not to start a new topic, but regarding the last crawl home in Prodigal, I swear I saw a painting of this exact scene in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg-I think the artist may have been Rubens. I mention this because somewhere in the past I have heard that Balanchine had used poses from existing artworks he had seen. (Supposedly, in the Elegie in Serenade, the pose with the Waltz girl on the floor, the man reaching to her and the Angel hovering over them exist somewhere as a sculpture.)Basically, the painting wordlessly depicted the exact words that Mel said are being said. (As a disclaimer, if no such painting exists, it is because I imagined it in a jet-lag induced dream.)

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leibling, I believe you're thinking of Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son" at the Hermitage, which does indeed show the son kneeling in front of the father as the father bends over to embrace him. Rembrandt also did a drawing of the same Biblical scene. All the figures, father and son and bystanders, are different in this one, and we look at the central pair from the side. I wish I could say I'd actually seen either one.

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Here's the link to picture of "the Return of Prodigal Son" at the Hermitage site:


"The subject comes from the Bible, The Gospel According to Luke, XV: 20-24. The artist had already turned to the theme several times in his graphic works, but in the Hermitage painting, created not long before his death, the painter endowed it with the sense of great tragedy elevated to a symbol of universal significance. Complex emotions are expressed in the figure of the bent old man and his suffering, kneeling son: repentance and charity, boundless love and regret at the belated spiritual awakening. These images represent the summit of Rembrandt’s psychological mastery."

Wow, Hermitage's description of the painting fits splendidly to the ballet.

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There is also a beautiful print of the Biblical subject by Albrecht Duhrer. It's about eight by ten inches. In it, the Prodigal is seen from behind at the moment of his return, kneeling in a Netherlandish farmyard, by a pig's trough. There is no other figure -- no literal father -- but the Prodigal has his eyes raised to heaven in prayer. There is a very strong sense of redemption through sin and through suffering and of the Prodigal's joy at finding his home again. It's one of Duhrer's very finest works, an absolutely transfixing one, a great example of how much meditative content can exist in a simple image.

I greatly enjoyed Peter Boal's attention to the details of his role, his facial expressions and the way his entire performance held together. I think that it was because of that, that I was able finally to begin relating more to broader thematic content, such as the crawl home and the realtionship between the principals, which were always present.

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