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Balanchine’s Prodigal Son Essay

I was not familiar with this ballet at all although I have enjoyed Prokofiev’s music when watching Romeo and Juliet. It is not a long piece to watch and the dancing although slow in parts (when the Siren is doing her solo and the Pas de Deux) it is always interesting to watch. The principle male has to really be able to act and portray lots of different emotions – it’s not all about the dancing for this character. I thought for the time it was created quite a contemporary piece which fitted the music.

I did like most of the ballet, particularly the portrayal of the male lead – very strong and evidently spoilt in the first scene (his beating his hands on his thighs when he was not getting what he wanted) to the almost foetal being he becomes in the end scene. I liked the Siren and her almost dancing a Pas de Deux with her cape. I particularly liked the imagery of the table being turned and the son sliding down the slippery slope. I found the presence of the ensemble at times confusing, such as when they seemed to turn into crabs when the son was left completely without possessions.

The story displays a spoilt young man who is confident in everything he does, this is shown in the way he commands his servants, his sisters and becomes the equivalent too todays troubled teenager when he does not get what he wants. He leaves his family to go off to the big city to have a good time and is seen doing this with his servants and people who are friendly with him only because of what he can provide. He then meets a domineering woman (the Siren with her red cape could also be seen as a prostitute as red is usual the colour of solicitation) with whom for a while he has a good time, when his fortune begins to run out she leaves and he is left with his “good time” friends who then systematically rob him of all he has in the world including the shirt off his back. The contrast shown from the confident young man leaping through the air in the first scene to a man so in despair and destitute he cannot even walk, he has to drag himself across the floor, is haunting and moving.

The ballet has the same theme as the biblical story in the gospel according to Luke but there are several differences. The ballet features sisters for the son where as in the bible he has an older respectful brother, who resents his return. There is no Siren mentioned in the bible (although there is a brief mention of prostitutes by the older brother). The father shown in the bible to me is someone who is overindulgent and loving to his son, where as the father in the ballet is portrayed as quite austere and unapproachable and almost God like in the end scene with his arms outstretched and beard until he envelops his son in the final embrace.

There is no scene in the ballet of the son resorting to becoming a swineherd and eating the pig’s food, which was significant in the bible with Jews dislike of pork. The deadly sin of greed is shown in both ballet and bible, which is redeemed by the contrary heavenly virtue charity when the father welcomes his son home. The pampered, indulged son is displayed clearly in both ballet and bible.

In ballet terms it is quite a surprising piece, the female lead is taller than the male which is unusual, the steps in the Pas de Deux are very slow and deliberate and some are quite acrobatic in appearance especially the lift where the son does it with his head through her legs rather than the usual style of lifting from the females waist. A pas de Deux you normally expect to display some emotion, romance, and sadness but here it is just strong athletic dancing with no emotion displayed. The dancing by the ensemble has an almost stamping, slapping quality – there is little finesse here, which is what you expect with ballet steps. The high level of drama and acting required is unusual, in the final scene the son hardly dances at all, the emotion and angst shown is all down to acting ability.


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