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 kept trying against all odds to build ties with Soviet artists back home. He was in touch with V. Meyerhold and wanted to present a joint season with the Moscow Art Theater. Above all, he was pouring himself into a new ballet with music by the celebrated young Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev: Prodigal Son.

Diaghilev envisioned the title role of this new ballet for his favorite, Serge Lifar, a boyish Ukrainian dancer with a beautiful physique. He wanted Matisse (who was unavailable) to design the sets, but settled for the French painter Georges Rouault, one of the few artists at the time working on religious themes. Rouault had been shaped by a turn-of-the-century revival of Byzantine art and helped to restore the medieval stained-glass windows at Chartres Cathedral. Icons and the black outlines recalling these windows found their way into the backdrops for Prodigal Son, framing each scene like a living image in stained glass. Diaghilev assigned the dances to his young ballet master, aged twenty-five: George Balanchine.

Prokofiev was a big name in Russian circles and one of the few artists moving successfully between the USSR and the West without yet committing to either. He had recently composed for the Ballets Russes Le pas d’acier, a “Bolshevist” ballet that suggested dancers wielding hammers and ladders, busily building the new socialist paradise. It was a sign that Prokofiev and Balanchine were already on opposing paths: Prokofiev would soon return to the USSR and compose, among other works, programmatic music for lavishly produced Socialist Realist story-ballets under Stalin’s watchful eye. Balanchine had recently made the pristine Apollon Musagète and would find his way to America and abstraction. When they worked on Prodigal Son, they were odd bedfellows in a project that, as it turned out, had the added poignancy of being Diaghilev’s last. The impresario would die unexpectedly of blood poisoning a few months later in Venice, at the age of fifty-seven.

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Prodigal Son, Diaghilev explained excitedly to Prokofiev as they set to work, was to be the biblical story “transplanted to Russian soil.” The scenario, written by Boris Kochno and Diaghilev, was based on the parable of the son who leaves home, squanders his inheritance, and returns ruined and repentant into his father’s welcoming arms. But the ballet was also influenced by Pushkin’s short story “The Stationmaster.” In this story, the stationmaster watches over a crossroads. He is a guardian of transience who sees people passing through, never staying, always moving on. There is only one settled fact in his life: a series of paintings about the Prodigal Son hanging on the station wall. These paintings serve as a backdrop for the stationmaster’s own failed search for his beloved prodigal daughter, who has gone off with a hussar and finally returns home after her father’s death—too late. The reader is left with a feeling of broken relations and missed people, of loss and exile, this time without redemption. For Diaghilev and Kochno, the stationmaster’s weary story was a way to turn the biblical tale into a reflection on their own lost and exiled lives.

The scenario for this “Russian” Prodigal was also curiously truncated and revised. Unlike the biblical story it told of only one son, the prodigal. It completely omitted the second half of the parable in which the “good” elder son resentfully confronts his too forgiving father, who has ordered the sacrifice of a fatted calf to celebrate the return of the sinful son because he “was lost and has been found.” Instead of this aggrieved elder son, the ballet gives us two servants or (in later revivals) placid sisters, ornaments of a household with no weight or right of inheritance. Fatted calf, feast, celebration, family tensions are nowhere to be found. In effect the ballet leaves us stranded in the middle of the story: the prodigal returns, but his home and his future are a blank. The ballet also added the role of the seductress Siren—a pagan figure absent from the Gospel—who conspires with a group of drunken goons to ruin the son, finally bending her body into the prow of a ship to carry him to his final fall from grace. This mythical sorceress, recalling the journey and temptations of the exiled Odysseus, was originally performed by Felia Doubrovska, a glamorous émigré dancer who had herself escaped Russia on foot and skis from Leningrad over the Gulf of Finland.

Rouault, Prokofiev, and Balanchine were often out of touch or at odds as they put together the ballet. Prokofiev, who recorded the experience in his diaries, worked closely with Diaghilev on the score (and dedicated it to the impresario), but he disliked Kochno and mostly ignored the scenario presented to him. He found Rouault a strangely unapproachable, “toad-like” man who made “gloomy and unappealing” pictures. For his part, Rouault took the trouble of immersing himself in the suppleness, or “plastique,” as he called it, of dance classes and Balanchine’s rehearsals for a month in Monte Carlo, but Balanchine too found him elusive. When they were all finally back in Paris for the stage rehearsals, Prokofiev saw Balanchine’s dances for the first time and was appalled. Naturally conservative and a practicing Christian Scientist, he found the eroticized steps for the Siren and the son “indecent” and offensive in a Gospel story. He complained insistently to Diaghilev, who stood by Balanchine and told Prokofiev he knew nothing about dance and should be quiet.

The opening night was a glittering society affair, with Prokofiev at the podium and Balanchine in the wings shouting counts at the nervous dancers. But if the ballet was well received by the public, Balanchine and Prokofiev both left the experience with bitter feelings about the production and each other. Prokofiev disapproved not only of Balanchine’s tawdry (he thought) and sexualized Siren dances but also of the vulgar depiction of the eerily bald, blue-green goons, who corrupt the son with drink and sex and steal everything he has, leaving him alone and nearly naked on the stage. Balanchine later explained that he had made the goons into subhuman “protoplasm,” with skittering movements and sinister shaved heads: “There’s no sex to them, you know—they’re insects…disgusting looking.” Balanchine was annoyed at Prokofiev too: “[Prokofiev] wanted a real garden and real wine and real mustaches and all that,” he later complained, “he wanted the Prodigal to look like Rigoletto.”

Balanchine’s dances were wild and disorienting. He was deeply involved in Futurism, Surrealism, Expressionism, and styles of avant-garde dance and art in interwar Petrograd, Paris, and Weimar (“so Fritz Lang!” one dancer later said). Critics noted the “inhuman contortions,” “strained acrobatical feats,” and “grotesqueness” of the movement. The dancer Agnes de Mille, who was there, described the goons as gargoyles and abnormal, undeveloped creatures, and wrote of the Prodigal Son’s shrunken loathing as he “thrashes in the dust, draws himself into a knot, kicks free, turns feverishly over and around and back again.” The setting was stark: this was no fancy-dress ballet, and the main prop on stage was a rectangular wooden slab that—turned in various directions—served as fence of family home, table of drunken feasting, ship of captivity, and, finally, pillar on which the denuded Prodigal was pinioned like Christ on the cross. This simple fence, table, ship, cross was his life: home, sin, repentance, return.

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Nor was the emotional encounter between father and son the central dramatic moment in the ballet. Instead that privilege was given to the son’s long journey home, an almost agonizingly drawn-out passage in Prokofiev’s score. Balanchine had worried about how he would fill these long pages of music, which clocked in at nearly two minutes. His answer was to strip the stage of everything and make the son—on his knees and barely clothed or alive—pull himself with his staff, slowly, inch by painful inch, toward a dark and empty horizon. For what seems like an eternity, this is all we see.

When this lost son finally arrives home he is not met with open arms by the compassionate fatherly figure depicted in the Bible. Instead, Balanchine made the father cold and formal, more priest or icon than man. His movements are stylized replicas of priestly gestures, and for later productions of the ballet Balanchine even brought images of Russian icons to the theater to guide the father’s makeup design. The father was originally danced by Michel Fedorov, a Russian émigré dancer; later, Balanchine occasionally stepped into the role himself. At the final moment of forgiveness, instead of running to welcome his desperate child, this father stands stiffly back with hands deliberately at his sides. He makes the son crawl to him, pulling himself forward in a humiliating reprise of his shameful journey home. When this twice-spent son finally reaches the father and prostrates himself before him, the father still does not bend but makes the son hoist himself onto his father’s chest, pulling himself up by the priestly vestments and curling his broken body into a fetal position, where he hangs like dead fruit on an inert paternal trunk until finally—finally—the father wraps his cloak around his son as the curtain falls.

The icons were crucial. Even the Siren—overpowering, detached, a seductress who entrances the son by coiling him into her serpentine legs—was an icon. Her movement is flat and stylized, never sensually seductive, and Doubrovska noted that the steps were “not classical ballet at all,” but something else entirely. She wore a form-fitting bright red bodice, short skirt, and long red cape, which she carried like a royal train, or wrapped whip-like around her thighs, or stretched into the sail of the captive ship to which she was the prow. Before each performance she ritually painted her long stockinged legs with Rouault’s black stained-glass lines. With her erect posture, tall high-priestess headdress, and heavy bejeweled necklace, she was an overwhelming and unapproachable erotic force. “Byzantine icons, Byzantine icons,” Balanchine repeated over and again in the coming decades. He told Doubrovska to be icy and impersonal, like a snake.

This “Russian” Prodigal was never primarily a parable of fathers and sons, seduction, repentance, and forgiveness. It was a solo communion featuring a protagonist of one: the ruined son and his long crawl back to his homeland. By the final scene of the ballet, we have been wound back to Pushkin’s stationmaster and the tragic arc of Russian exile with no return. It was a sign too of the kind of God that Balanchine imagined at the time. The father is stern because life is stern, or it is for this son who finds himself not in the warm embrace of fatherly love but in the protective arms of an icon. Forgiveness is not a gushing flow of feeling but a fragile human dam against the tragedy of separation and broken ties. The forsaken home, with its feasts and traditions, cannot flow unobstructed into the present, and we are left with the sense that this lost son may never be fully found. And although the ballet appealed widely to audiences, it was not an ecumenical or universal conversation across oceans or faiths. It was a strictly Orthodox affair. If we understand the Russian Revolution to be one of the great episodes of iconoclasm, intent on destroying the Church and its faith, Balanchine’s icon-filled dances also stood as a riposte: against the Bolsheviks who stole their world away.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Serge Lifar and Michel Fedorov in the Ballets Russes’ original production of Prodigal Son, 1929

In the decades to come, Balanchine left Prodigal Son largely intact—a striking fact considering his stated ambivalence toward the dance and his known practice of revising his own ballets. By the time he revived it for Jerome Robbins in 1950, the sets were gone, but instead of creating new ones he asked the Spanish artist Esteban Francés to work from old sketches to recreate Rouault’s designs. Until they were ready, Robbins performed with an improvised backdrop. In 1929 Balanchine had noted that “Lifar, on his knees,…made the ballet,” and over the years, he kept that firmly in place too. Above all, he never changed or expanded the story to align it with the biblical tale. It remained the parable stripped to its most traumatic moment and set in a harsh light: without sentiment, ornament, or prettily balletic steps. If the ballet seemed to him at times old-fashioned, it was also a steadfast document of his own journey away from staid forms into new movement and gestural inventions. Like most ballets, Prodigal Son took its continued vitality less from dutifully recreated steps than from the dancers it served, and for nearly half a century, Balanchine allowed Prodigal to serve its sons.

Robbins was the first to take on Lifar’s role. He later said that the Prodigal Son and Petroushka were his two most important dancing roles, and we can see why. Petroushka, the anguished puppet, a soul trapped in a sawdust body languishing to love and to escape the confines of his own sad condition, was a kind of exile too. Robbins saw himself in life and in art as a perennial outsider, and when he took on Prodigal Son he was already thinking about his own Russian-Jewish roots—his father, his family story of pogroms, emigration, assimilation. He was working in those years at the Actors Studio with Marlon Brando and Elia Kazan, and was fascinated by Stanislavsky and method acting. He brought an intense emotional interiority to the Prodigal role, but he was careful to make clear that this was craft and technique. This is not you, it is theater, he coached a later son: “If you cry, they won’t.”*

At the time, Robbins had just joined Balanchine as associate artistic director of the recently formed New York City Ballet, and in addition to dancing he was busy choreographing his own ballet inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem The Age of Anxiety. As we think of Robbins engrossed in Auden’s wartime lament on four lost souls in a New York bar, each in search of faith in a fallen world, Prodigal Son begins to seem like a companion piece. Lincoln Kirstein remembered Auden standing in the wings with Balanchine as Robbins danced Prodigal. The poet, who had reconverted to Anglicanism before the war, quietly told Balanchine that he found his depiction of the father too severe: the father should come to the son and warmly stretch out his arms. No, said Balanchine, he won’t. Later he repeated the point to one of his dancers: “No. Father does not move. He is like God. Boy must come to him.

Edward Villella, who took on the Prodigal role in 1960, was a different kind of son. In part because of his own family background, he understood the idea of the patriarch, the padrone, the giver and pourer of the wine, that lay at the heart of the dance. He had grown up in a large southern Italian émigré family, with Sunday gatherings at his grandfather’s home in Queens. Villella vividly remembered the long banquet-like dinners and the wine unearthed from deep in the cellar, “buried like a mystery in the mud.” Eddie was a tough kid, a streetfighter; he played baseball, became an amateur boxer, and attended the Merchant Marine Academy. Ballet, he later wrote, was a rebellion and a way out of it all. He studied secretly and eventually found his way to the NYCB.

When Balanchine gave Villella the role—“maybe Prodigal is small Italian boy,” he told another dancer—he offered little guidance. “You know dear, Byzantine icons,” he once said, but mainly he let Villella find his way to the son himself—which he did, with a vengeance. Villella may have been a small boy, but he also had enormous sex appeal, and his Prodigal Son had a flagrant and full-bodied physicality that gave him a rock-star-like success in the dance—a fact that didn’t always please Balanchine. He reined Villella in: “Don’t be movie actor, dear,” he said of the final crawl. When the NYCB toured the USSR in 1962 and the Soviets responded to Prodigal with rapturous applause—here, after all, was their own Prokofiev and a story-ballet that seemed akin to Socialist Realism—Balanchine was furious. He resented any association with Soviet taste or celebrity worship. “You wanted to dance dramatic ballet, now you’re hero,” he said to Villella in a rare moment of rage. Around this time, Villella says, Balanchine also told him that Prodigal was all his—he could have it. “I’m never going to stage it again.”

But he did. The last time was in the late 1970s, for Mikhail Baryshnikov, a dancer who came with his own experience of broken families and exile. It is perhaps fitting that the story of Balanchine’s relation to his dance should end with this recently defected Latvian-born dancer whom the choreographer intuitively saw in some ways as a kind of son. He even committed Baryshnikov’s Prodigal to film for the PBS series Dance in America, personally reconceiving the dance for television and taking part in the taping. In addition to Baryshnikov’s impassioned film performance, we also have extraordinary raw footage from his rehearsals with Balanchine and several of the other dancers. In this tape, we see Balanchine, aged seventy-three, wearing a button-down shirt, slacks, and loafers, throwing himself into the rehearsal with impressive physicality. By the time it is over, he has danced almost every part—the son, the sisters, the Siren, the father. He is everywhere in the room, demonstrating the movement, placing the dancers, considering camera angles, making them all laugh as he imitates the sisters when they walk in ways that look foolishly balletic.

Perhaps the most striking moment comes as he and Misha (as Balanchine fondly called him) work through the final scene with the son on his knees. Balanchine wants to show the movement and begins to lower himself onto his own knees, as Misha—visibly worried that the choreographer will injure his aging body—stands anxiously aside. Balanchine is oblivious, and the next thing we know he is on the floor playing Misha’s part, curling over, head clasped in his arms. They soon slip into Russian and become totally absorbed as Balanchine gestures, cajoles, and gently pushes the young dancer this way and that to help him capture the movement. They take it from the top with music, and Misha falls to his knees and begins the long journey across the stage. Balanchine shepherds him along until suddenly he too is on his knees and the old man and the boy are holding on to each other, inching along side by side in this ancient story and a dance that has crossed a century from Russia to America, through revolution, world wars, and now the cold war.

As these two sons arrive collapsed at the father’s feet, Balanchine, still in Misha’s role, begins to climb onto the father’s stiffened body, showing the boy how to do it, where to place an arm, how to lift a knee, like so. Misha tries it himself, and they are moving in and out of each other now, as dancers do, and Balanchine gently guides the son’s body into the paternal cradle, pressing father and son together like clay. For a moment, the old choreographer seems in possession of both roles as he takes the father’s arm and guides it like a gesture of his own into the final embrace.

It is a moment that reminds us that at its best, dance has nothing to do with words. It is acts and deeds, time and rhythm. It is an art that depends for its survival on rehearsal, repetition, reiteration, a physical and oral tradition that is passed from father to son, dancer to dancer, son to son. In a way, the polished stage production of this old dance was (or became) a remnant—tight, fixed, an object with a hard lacquered surface like the icons it so called upon and emulated. Its life may finally reside less in the public act of performance than in the private process of passing it on. We can read the ballet too as a comment on the world Balanchine had created at the New York City Ballet. He made his dancers come to him, but he was also bountiful and returned to them what they had given to him: his ballets, their inheritance. The point was not forgiveness, really, but acceptance, which must be earned and assigns no blame. The father finally accepts the son into his arms, but they both know that a trauma has occurred and that the future cannot necessarily heal or retrieve the shattered past. They must move on. It is a reminder that in the twentieth century, ballet became a kind of exile art, a province of dancers and artists compelled to make difficult journeys at great personal cost. And if Balanchine sometimes resented the enduring power of this once begotten dance, it may have been because he too had moved on—because he, like the son who comes home, had left.

  1. *

    I am grateful to Damian Woetzel, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and a noted interpreter of the Prodigal role, for this and other insights into the dance and its history.