Prodigal Son

Music: Sergei Prokofiev (Op. 46, 1928—1929)
Libretto: Boris Kochno
Choreography: George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
Staging: Richard Tanner
Scenic and Costume Design: Georges Rouault
Duration: 41 minutes
Premiere: May 21, 1929; Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (Paris)
Pacific Northwest Ballet Premiere: April 19, 1984

Lucien Postlewaite in Prodigal Son.
Photo © Angela Sterling

Prodigal Son was the impresario Serge Diaghilev’s last production for the Ballet Russes just months before his death in 1929. With choreography by the 24-year-old George Balanchine, an original score by Sergei Prokofiev, and monumental expressionist sets by Georges Rouault, the ballet is the quintessence of an extraordinary epoch in 20th-century dance. Beginning with The Firebird in 1910, Diaghilev was a magnet for many of the most exciting avant-garde choreographers, composers and visual artists, who together made some of the landmarks of modern art. The aesthetic unity to which Diaghilev inspired in his productions is brilliantly realized in Prodigal Son, no part of which can satisfactorily be imagined separate from the other.

With a libretto by Boris Kochno derived for the Biblical parable and from a description of it in a story by Pushkin, the ballet is deeply religious and Russian in feeling. According to the great critic Edwin Denby, much of its power comes from “the leisure in the pacing of the scenes, which transports the action into a spacious patriarchal world, like a lifetime of faith.” But this tale of brash self-assertion, debauchery and repentance is also a devastating commentary on the dehumanizing nature of modern life. Just a year earlier, in Apollo, Balanchine has discovered the essence of his modern classicism in a contemporary rendering of idealized human forms. But in Prodigal Son, he boldly borrowed movement from the world of gymnasts and circus performers—not to shock gratuitously, but to create a symbolic poetry of the grotesque.

The heart of the matter is communicated through unforgettable visual contrasts: the upright stature and calm, unhurried gestures of the patriarch; the acrobatic bravado of the son, impelled towards freedom; the mechanized back-to-back scuttlings of the gargoyle-like revelers; the snakelike sensuality of the seductress; and finally, the sinew-wrenching journey of the Prodigal, on his knees, to the forgiving embrace of his father—that still point of the turning world.

Although Diaghilev worried that the young choreographer’s usually intellectual approach to his art might preclude his communicating the deep feeling so essential to Prodigal Son, Balanchine produced a work of awesome dramatic and emotional power that remains one of the masterpieces of 20th-century art.

The story

Scene 1
The Prodigal Son quarrels with his father and departs in the company of his two false friends.

Scene 2
The Prodigal Son meets with a number of acquaintances and takes part in their feasting. A Siren enters and seeks to captivate him with her dancing. His two friends entertain the guests. The Prodigal Son dances with the Siren. She and his friends tempt him to drink to excess until he falls into a stupor. His false friend, the Siren and the guests strip the Prodigal Son of all his possessions.

The Prodigal Son, recovered from his debauchery, wakes and bemoans his miserable plight, and then, completely distraught, resolves to return home.

When he has departed, his false friends, the Siren and the guests return to parade the plunder taken from the Prodigal Son.

Scene 3
The Prodigal Son, penniless, heartbroken, and exhausted, returns home to be welcomed and forgiven by his father.

—Boris Kochno

Recommended Listening:
Prokofiev: The Prodigal Son, Scottish National Orchestra/Neeme Järvi, Chandos 8728

Recommended Reading:
Prodigal Son, by Edward Villella & Larry Kaplan (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998)

Recommended Viewing:
Choreography by Balanchine, DVD, (Nonesuch, 2004)

Notes by Jeanie Thomas, 1992; edited by Doug Fullington, 2007.

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