Dance Card: Polishing Balanchine's masterly 'Prodigal Son'

September 16, 2014
The Chicago Tribune
Laura Molzahn


 "You be nasty," Edward Villella instructs April Daly. He tells her partner, Ogulcan Borova, just as pointedly: "She scares the bejesus out of you."

Villella is putting the finishing touches on George Balanchine's 1929 biblical story, "The Prodigal Son," for the Joffrey. Balanchine Trust repetiteur Elyse Borne has already set the steps, and Villella is in town to fine-tune, adding human dimension and providing historical accuracy. Daly is the Siren, Borova the Son — a role Villella danced for 16 years, beginning in 1960, at New York City Ballet when Balanchine was artistic director.


Part of the Joffrey's "Stories in Motion" program — a short run for three short narrative ballets, Thursday through Sunday at the Auditorium — "Prodigal" will be performed for the first time since 2000, along with Antony Tudor's classic "Lilac Garden" (1936) and the Chicago premiere of Yuri Possokhov's "RAkU" (2011), about a scheming monk who comes between a Japanese emperor and his beloved princess.

Among other tidbits, Villella tells me that Sergei Prokofiev, who wrote the music for "Prodigal," was "a complicated pain in the neck. He and Balanchine didn't get along. Balanchine was a young guy — 23, 24 — and they were two geniuses. Prokofiev was older, but also in those days composers looked down on choreographers because they were using his music, his ideas."

A kid from the Bronx whose father made him go to college and earn a B.S. in marine transportation, Villella was 24 and in his sophomore year at NYCB when Balanchine revived the work, after a ten-year hiatus, and gave him the Son role. "It was not a ballet he was fond of," Villella notes, "because he was forced to do it [by Ballets Russes] and because he and Prokofiev didn't get along." Balanchine showed Villella the opening in a half hour, the closing in a half hour, and the Siren pas de deux in an hour.

He got no pointers after that. "Suddenly I was dancing this major, major role," Villella says. "I'd never done a dramatic work, I hardly knew the technique, and he throws this stuff at me, doesn't coach me, doesn't do anything." He asked New Yorker critic Arlene Croce, "'Why didn't he guide me?' And she said, 'Well, maybe he wanted to see what you would do with it.'" His interpretation became the stuff of legend.

Frankly, some of the angular "Prodigal Son" choreography looks impossible. At one point, the Siren stands on pointe over the Son, sitting with knees bent — and he grabs her by the ankles and lifts her feet onto his knees, then holds her lower legs so she can lean forward like a ship's figurehead. It's a feat of strength, timing and mind reading. Painstakingly, Villella gets down on his knees to show Borova and Daly how they can work together to accomplish it.

Afterward, Villella explains to me his emphasis on the hands, first demonstrating the wrong hand — curved — then the right one: fingers splayed wide and stiff, palms facing away from the body. "It's this specific thing throughout the ballet," he says. "If you're not consistent, it's confusing."

That hand, Villella adds, came from Byzantine icons. "Balanchine always said he discovered, he didn't create," he notes. "Nothing is arbitrary, it all comes from something. Here was a man who was absolutely brilliant, a genius. When he was going to do a score, he studied it three to five years, note by note: the dance was all taking shape in his mind. He once told me he had 20 fully studied scores in his head at any given time.

"You have to respect a masterwork," Villella continues. "It's not like you can look at a Rembrandt and say, 'Oh, it's a little too dark ...' These works that I danced for so many years, I certainly don't own them, but I have a responsibility to them because they gave me such incredible life. Any time I can, I want to give these insights, because they are not obvious. And there are fewer and fewer of us left, so we do have a responsibility. I truly love doing this."