One of Balanchine’s most memorable ballets is handed down from one generation of dancers to the next, now landing at Pacific Northwest Ballet.
When Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Benjamin Griffiths takes the stage in George Balanchine’s “The Prodigal Son” next week, he’ll be the latest link in a distinguished ballet chain. PNB artistic director Peter Boal, who coached Griffiths in the part, was himself coached in the role by Jerome Robbins, at New York City Ballet in the 1980s — who in turn learned it from Balanchine himself. Robbins performed the title role in the ballet’s NYCB premiere, in 1950.
“The Prodigal Son” wasn’t new even then; it was created by a very young Balanchine (just 25) for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russe in 1929. Set to a strikingly modern score by Sergei Prokofiev (commissioned for the ballet by Diaghilev), it’s based on a biblical story, and depicts a rebellious son who abandons his home for sensual pleasures but later seeks forgiveness from his father. The title role has long been a showcase for a dramatic, high-leaping male dancer: Edward Villella, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Damien Woetzel are among the many who, over the years at NYCB, made the role their own — as did Boal.
The role is unusual in that it contains few classical ballet steps, despite some dazzling jumps and fierce pirouettes in the early minutes; instead, much of it is a complex, sensuous partnering with a woman known only as The Siren, and a long final sequence in which the son, battered and dressed in tatters, must drag himself home on hands and knees, earthbound. The final moment, in which the son is cradled by his father and the two seem to become one before us, can have an astonishing emotional impact; we believe that this young man was broken, and will be whole again.
‘See the Music’
Pacific Northwest Ballet, Sept. 25-Oct. 4, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $30-$187 (206-441-2424 or pnb.org). Program includes “The Prodigal Son” (choreography by George Balanchine, music by Sergei Prokofiev), “The Concert” (choreography by Jerome Robbins, music by Frederic Chopin) and “Tide Harmonic” (choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, music by Joby Talbot).
“I was 21 when I first did it,” Boal recalled earlier this month, of a role he’d perform for nearly two decades. He remembered first asking to do the role (“I knew there was a side of me that wasn’t getting shown”) and panicking upon learning that he’d go on in a week. Robbins, then Co-Ballet Master in Chief of NYCB, spent a week working with Boal on the role’s dramatic challenges — “he was such an actor, he loved everything about acting as much as he loved everything about dancing.”
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Boal smiled, remembering their first rehearsal. “[Robbins] said, ‘OK, what did you have for breakfast this morning?’ I didn’t understand that he was asking what the character had for breakfast; he wanted to know what time the character woke up, what time does your father wake up, what time did you ask your friends to come, what have you heard about the Siren who lives over there. He wanted all that ground work of characterization, before you set a foot on stage. And, honest to God, I answered, ‘An Egg McMuffin.’ ”
He was also given access to a rare treasure: eight hours of NYCB-filmed footage of Balanchine coaching Baryshnikov in the role in the 1970s, on DVD. “I sat down for eight hours with a notepad, took notes,” Boal remembered, though the experience ultimately wasn’t quite as enlightening as he’d hoped. “When the stuff gets really good, they go into Russian.”
Griffiths, a dancer at PNB since 2005, will perform the role this month for the first time (sharing the performances with James Moore and Matthew Renko), but was “obsessed” with it as a child, reading about the ballet repeatedly in Villella’s memoir “Prodigal Son.” In rehearsals with Boal, he said, they’ve likewise talked about the acting challenges of the role.
“When you [first] come out, you have to have an almost manic excitement,” he said. He and Boal have discussed “why you have that energy, what’s going to give you that feeling when you come out.” But there’s more to it than simply feeling the emotions. “Your dancing has to have that same kind of anger,” he said, saying that in rehearsal they’ve worked on “holding tension in our upper bodies, so we’re never long or extended — that gives a look as well as what’s going on with your face.”
And Griffiths, an elegant dancer known for the artful precision of his classical roles, will need to find his own details, to make the role personal to him. Boal remembered that, as a young dancer performing the role, his own father had just died. “It really made the role relevant for me,” he said. “Then, the other times I was doing it, I had kids of my own. It really ran the gamut.”
Griffiths remembered, as a student at NYCB’s School of American Ballet, seeing Boal in the role; a performance that may subconsciously influence his. “Of course, you try to somewhat emulate dancers who you look up to,” he said. “But I think, just being different, mine’s going to be different.”
Boal, across the table, nodded. “I think a big part of who you are as a dancer is going to be allowed to come out as this role.” The chain, as is the nature of ballet, goes on.