Balanchine and the Bible, not to mention composer Serge Prokofiev and the great painter Georges Rouault – how could it miss? And, in truth, The Prodigal Son has been knocking them out since its 1929 premiere with Diaghilev’s famed Ballets Russes. Choreographer George Balanchine was only 25 when he made this dance and, although he went on to create many of the staples of the world repertoire during his long career, Prodigal Son remains, along with Apollo, an enduring reminder of his Diaghilev days.
Based on the Biblical parable of the rebellious child who flees his father’s hearth to find adventure in the wider world, only to lose everything, it is one of the few Balanchine works in which the steps are subordinate to the story. The great Serge Lifar created the role of the son. In our own time, Rudolph Nureyev performed it with the Royal Ballet and Mikhail Baryshnikov made it one of his signature roles.
It calls as much for acting as technical skill and, in Program 4 of the current San Francisco Ballet season, Joan Boada, one of the hottest Cuban imports since the Havana cigar, did it proud. Progressing from childhood petulance to adolescent swagger after he is beaten and fleeced by the more sophisticated forces of the world, he literally comes crawling home, heartbreaking in his penitence.
Yuan Yuan Tan, a last-minute substitute for Muriel Maffre, danced the stylized, almost Egyptian, movements of the Siren on opening night and Val Caniparoli was the dignified, forgiving father. Rouault’s backdrops — one with suggestions of the world beyond the desert tent of the father, the other a kind of dining table still life at the home of the Siren – could hang in a museum. But Prodigal Son itself is no museum piece. It is a living, breathing work of art, as moving today as it was seven decades ago.
From ancient lore and time-honored choreography, the company jumped right into A Garden, the world premiere of a new ballet by the innovative American choreographer, Mark Morris. The score of this work is a suite of Couperin dances, arranged and orchestrated by none other than Richard Strauss some 200 years after it was originally composed for the piano. Morris, famed for his quirky, tongue-in-cheek, gender-bending choreography, keeps things pretty classic here. It may be his most purely balletic work to date.
Largely a group effort, with 12 dancers weaving in and out of Morris’ intricate patterns, only to briefly break up into trios and duos, it featured a couple of show-stopping solos by Tina LeBlanc and the amazing Guennadi Nedviguine as well as a lovely pas de deux by Joanna Berman and Damian Smith at the end. Choreographer Morris joined the company for multiple well-deserved curtain calls.
In terms of ballet history, this program was a perfect sampler. From the exciting innovation of Balanchine in the great Diaghilev days to the equally exciting work of Morris in our own, San Francisco Ballet traveled back in time to the glory of Imperial Russian ballet. Marius Petipa was the great choreographer of that time before Michel Fokine leapt onto the scene and basically laid the foundation for classic Russian ballet as we know it today. The legendary Petipa was 80 when he set Raymonda to a highly danceable score by Alexander Glazounov in 1898. In 1983, another dance legend, Nureyev, reworked it for the Paris Opera Ballet (not surprisingly beefing up the male roles) and his version of Act III closed out the program for San Francisco Ballet.
Set at a wedding celebration for the title character and her French swain, the finale of Raymonda takes place at the mythical medieval castle of the King of Hungary (Cyril Pierre). Against a background of red and gold opulence, there was ample opportunity for the high kicking Hungarian corps de ballet to show their stuff. Add to this the exquisite pointe work of Lorena Feijoo as Raymonda and the leaps and jumps of Roman Rykine and it was quite a wedding. Katita Waldo also did a sprightly solo turn.
Was it gorgeous? You bet your czardas.