Thursday, February 10, 2011


NYCB in Rehearsal: Prodigal Son and After the Rain

(Various photos are not Sara Mearns or Sean Suozzi, but cobbled together to give you a sense of the ballet)

I wonder if there is a more violent role for a man in ballet than the Prodigal Son. At one point, our Prodigal Son, now very far from home, sits on the floor and bends his head. The unrelenting Siren stands on his shins and he holds her in place, then slowly lowers his leg. It's one of the many unconventional lifts and moves that Balanchine employed the convey the complete dominance the Siren has over the Prodigal Son and the debauchery of her world.

I've seen the ballet before--most recently with Angel Corella and Kristi Boone--but was really pleased to be invited to watch Sara Mearns and Sean Suozzi in rehearsal. I'm like a broken record now with my Sara Mearns love, but what a treat it was to see this lush, commanding dancer take on the role of the Siren. How easily she sliced through those turns in arabesque seconde (that was very mean, George Balanchine). And how easy she made it all look--the cape, the parallel bourrees, the lifts.

I was fascinated to also watch the ballet in rehearsal. There's the prop--the gate/table/boat/crucifix. There are the subtle moments where the ballet master reminded the group of goons to stay upstage so the Siren was always in the foreground. There were the numerous challenging jumps that Suozzi had to master. I had an even greater appreciation for the level of detail that the rehearsal master was trying to draw out, and for the effort on the part of the dancers.

Watching these young people work so hard, I only wanted them to succeed. Watching a rehearsal like this is informative on so many levels--you see what makes the dancers human, you see the seams of a piece and how certain moments require extra concentration, and you see the effort that goes into bringing a piece to life. There was the conductor, mastering the tempos while conducting a piano. There was the pianist, who was expected to know what "Go back to Prod stomps" meant. There was the demand of superb timing--Prod is edited carefully so there are no spare moments, despite the scene changes. There can be no error.

And yet in all of this, you could really see the seeds of greatness, in the dancers themselves and in the work. I did not get to see the live performance--Suozzi and Mearns were debuting (I was at the Joyce), though a text from Tonya confirms that the evening was a success. I look forward to her more thoughtful review.

As for the ballet itself--for me it is without question a masterpiece. You can check out this video for clips to get a sense. I know I have a sense to complain about Balanchine's ballets feeling dated--absolutely nothing is dated about Prodigal Son. From the story, to the unusual and constantly inventive moves, you are aware that you are seeing a singular work. There are moments--when the goons move their hands like a centipede, or when the Son returns home on his knees--that are not ballet per se. They are movement. But they are intelligent movement used in such an effective way. Then there are the complex and distorted positions of the Siren and Son--how else can you better convey the sickness of their relationship than when she literally dominates him by wrapping her body around his legs and slowly, expertly lowering herself down. The Son stands no chance against the Siren (especially when she is Sara Mearns).

(Video clip of After the Rain, not Whelan and Hall)

I was also really, really fortunate enough to see Wheeldon's "After the Rain" in rehearsal. This is a classic piece, much discussed and recently the subject of a full article in Dance Magazine, who interviewed various principal dancers to take on the role. Wendy Whelan, of course, originated the part and so it was particularly moving to watch her perform it, and to see her gently provide advice to her young partner, Craig Hall. I will cry when Wendy retires (plus, everyone always tells me that she is absolutely the nicest person, and I like it when nice people are also successful people).

I don't know what After the Rain is meant to reference. But for me, the intense emotion and intimate choreography (and the pointe shoe less dancer), made me think of a couple, coming together after some kind of storm, and focusing on the important work ahead of them--of coming together, or being kind and forgiving, and thankful. I found it a profoundly moving piece. There is a moment in the DanceMagazine article, for example where Whelan spoke of blessing the "four corners." I noticed that moment in the piece, and the genuine deference and elegance with which she committed to the gestures. For me, then, this is a rich piece, filled with honest and earnest emotion that is never cloying, but feels sincere and complex in the best sense.

I hope to see it in performance some day.

When watching Prodigal, be sure not to be too distracted while the goons and servants are carousing (dancing) downstage. Direct your attention to what is going on upstage, where the Son and the Siren appear to be just sitting quietly. It's arguably the sexiest "pas de deux" in the ballet.
Will do! I have to say, I could watch this ballet over and over again. It is such a masterpiece, and like the 4Ts, the choreography feels as fresh and surprising today as it must have when first performed. It's just extraordinary. And it was moving to me to watch how everyone rehearsed--how carefully the rehearsal master shaped the performance. Truly an honor to watch.
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