By any standard, Sergei Prokofiev was prolific. He wrote seven symphonies, five piano concertos, string quartets, chamber and solo instrumental music, film scores, operas, including The Love for Three Oranges, with its famous march. His Peter and the Wolf for narrator and orchestra has delighted children the world over. Yet, in his oeuvre, music for dance assumed a special place. His Romeo and Juliet ranks as one of ballet's great music scores (Kenneth MacMillan's staging returns to ABT on July 6). The upcoming Celebration ranges from the from the early masterwork of a young titan to this season's World Premiere by ABT's first Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky.
The year 2009 marks the centenary of Serge Diaghilev's legendary Ballets Russes, the Paris-based dance troupe that served as a creative laboratory for dancers, choreographers, composers, artists, and designers from 1909 to1929 and effectively altered the course of music, theater, and dance history. In 20 years, the Ballets Russes introduced such as works as Afternoon of a Faun, Petrouchka, and Parade, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, Michel Fokine, and L_onide Massine, respectively; music of Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie; and art by Alexandre Benois, L_on Bakst, and Picasso. During what turned out to be the company's last season, Prodigal Son, with a constellation of forces that included the 25-year-old George Balanchine, a score by Prokofiev, composed to a libretto by Boris Kochno, and scenery and costumes by French painter Georges Rouault, premiered on May 21, 1929 at the Th_ê¢tre Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris. Like Apollo (originally titled Apollon musagte), Balanchine's ballet created in 1928 for Diaghilev's company, Prodigal Son claims place as one of the choreographer's early masterworks. The French dancer Serge Lifar originated the title role in both.
Prokofiev's score ideally suited the taut dramatic narrative devised by Kochno, based on the parable found in the Gospel of St. Luke, with an emphasis on sin and redemption. To flesh out the story, Kochno added the central: and essential: role of the Siren to the ballet's scenario. Notwithstanding the incisive psychological characterization of Prokofiev's music, the composer envisioned a realistic depiction of the story rather than the symbolic, abstract dance that Balanchine created and crossed swords with the choreographer and Diaghilev over the staging. However, Balanchine prevailed. Though Prodigal Son was a critical and popular success, the artistic differences during its creation soured any future collaboration. Years later in recounting the work's genesis, Balanchine remarked, "You know, Prokofiev was a great chess player, and that's how he thought: in straight mathematical lines." Prodigal Son entered the ABT repertory in 1980. The current revival recreates the original production.
The disbanding of the Ballets Russes after Diaghilev's death in 1929 prompted a widespread artistic diaspora (its dancers, choreographers, and ballet masters spread throughout Europe and ultimately the United States and beyond). In 1930, Lifar became the ballet master of the Paris Opera Ballet and commissioned a score from Prokofiev for the ballet On the Dnieper. It had a loose plot, contemporary in setting, a romantic triangle involving a Soviet soldier who falls in love with a peasant girl, and a young man to whom the girl's father has promised his daughter: the scene is along the Dnieper, the principal river in Ukraine. Unlike the focused plot of Prodigal Son, Lifar and Prokofiev "proceeded from the choreographic and musical structure, considering that a ballet's scenario is of only secondary importance," as Prokofiev told the writer and fellow composer Boris Asafiev. Regarding the scenario as secondary may have led to the ballet's lack of success at its premiere in 1932. Despite the expressive quality of Prokofiev's music, On the Dnieper remains largely unknown as a concert piece.
The seeming lack of sharply delineated dramatic structure provides a fresh opportunity for Alexei Ratmansky. "For me," says Ratmansky, "the music always comes first. And this beautiful score, though it was written while Prokofiev was still living in Paris, is unmistakably Russian. It has a cosmopolitan style, but a modernist flair; it is both intellectual and spontaneous." While Ratmansky, who is known for the emotional richness of his ballets, regards the music to Dnieper dramatically intense, he adds, "It is the human emotion in the music that interests me." He conceives his ballet as abstract but "possessed of a quality in line with the nature of the original score." It is for 24 dancers, with four main characters and four secondary roles. Husband-and-wife team Simon Pastukh and Galina Solovyeva, who have collaborated with Ratmansky at the Bolshoi Ballet, are the designers of the sets and costumes.
The dance D_sir, created by James Kudelka, who served as the resident choreographer of the National Ballet of Canada as well as its Artistic Director, completes the Prokofiev evening. Originally made for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, the presentation of D_sir by ABT represents its company premiere. The music for this ballet is drawn from two dramatic works Prokofiev wrote after his permanent move back to the Soviet Union, the ballet Cinderella and the opera War and Peace. "Waltz music from Cinderella and War and Peace is the music of D_sir, but there are no waltzes in it: no down-up-up," says Kudelka. D_sir, a ballet for seven couples, is about erotic desire. The dancemaker elaborates, "the work has a gritty, passionate take on the sexual." And there is nothing conventional about Prokofiev's waltzes, variously exuberant, languid, sardonic, and tender. They are clothed in colorful orchestrations pulsating with sound worlds that seem to have been tailor-made for Kudelka's choreography (Kudelka's affection for the music of Cinderella led him to stage the complete ballet for the National Ballet of Canada in 2004, a production which premiered at ABT in 2006). As with many great moments in Prokofiev ballets, D_sir ends quietly.
If partnering is primary to the waltz, it is at the core of Kudelka's expressive ballet, which unfolds as a series of duets. "Partnering comes from what one learns in one's life: a man has certain strengths, a woman has others," says Kudelka. In creating D_sir, the choreographer was inspired by the celebrated partnership of Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun at the Stuttgart Ballet. Kudelka, known for his distillation of classical ballet and modern dance idioms into a unique style, hopes above all that the audience forgets they are watching dance, forgets they are seeing choreography. He explains, "the movement is driven by the music and as an expression of real desire, D_sir involves the taking of risks. By so doing, the dancers become fully present in the work."
In planning the All-Prokofiev Celebration, ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie summarizes, "The evening will consist of music by a great 20th-century composer and the dance his music inspires: a historic work by a master, a daring and provocative piece from a world-renowned choreographer, and the world premiere and Company debut by our new artist in residence." One couldn't ask for more.
For tickets and further information, visit American Ballet Theatre.
Mario R. Mercado is Arts Editor of Travel + Leisure magazine.