Balanchine at the Crossroads

Paul Kolnik
George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov rehearsing Prodigal Son at the New York City Ballet, 1979

George Balanchine could never quite let go of Prodigal Son. He made the ballet in 1929 in Paris several years after emigrating from Soviet Russia; he last worked on it in New York, a few years before his death. Along the way, it died many deaths in his mind. He told Lincoln Kirstein in 1933 that it was already outmoded and that the final scene with the son “on his knees” crawling toward his father was an “old trick” and would have to be rethought (it never was). In 1950 he revived the ballet for Jerome Robbins largely intact, and a decade later he staged it again with Edward Villella in the lead role, although Villella admitted that Balanchine’s heart didn’t seem in it. When Villella later wanted to perform the dance with another company, Balanchine said, “Oh no, dear, awful ballet, lousy, rotten. No good. I hate it. Old-fashioned. Terrible ballet. Don’t do it. Do something else.” Still, in 1978 when Mikhail Baryshnikov, recently defected from the USSR, briefly joined the New York City Ballet, Balanchine again reached for this old dance and gave the young dancer the Prodigal role. By then his health was fragile, and he noted with some relief that this time he would really “never have to do this again” since for Misha he had finally gotten it right.

Prodigal Son was not even originally Balanchine’s idea. It began with the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev in the late 1920s, at a moment when his own health was declining. He had developed infectious boils on his skin, and this affliction, compounded by an ongoing struggle with diabetes, was making him feel old and besieged. Diaghilev had founded the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909 as a showcase of Russian talent and outpost of the avant-garde, but the upheavals of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution were making it difficult to import the Russian artists who were the lifeblood of his enterprise. With Stalin taking control, it was ever more dangerous to return home, and reports about life in the USSR from fleeing émigrés and friends were grim. It didn’t help that Diaghilev had learned that his half-brother in Leningrad had been arrested by the police and disappeared. When he tried to investigate, his inquiries through the French authorities were met by the Soviets with stony silence.

All of this was making Diaghilev a haunted man. Russia was constantly on his mind. He collected Russian icons, books, and manuscripts with growing fervor, scavenging through bookstores and shops for precious objects from the pre-Bolshevik past. As it became clear that Imperial Russia was gone forever, he turned like many in the Parisian émigré community of “Russia Abroad” increasingly to the Church, and his Orthodox faith intensified. Professionally, he…

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