American Ballet Theatre, American values, Anthony Huxley, Balanchine, ballet, Bible, children, Daniel Simkin, family, Georges Rouault, Herman Cornejo, Melody S. Owens, Michele Wiles, music, New York City Ballet, parable, Politics, Prokofiev, refugees, religion, sharing, The Prodigal Son, welcoming strangers
A revisit to New York City Ballet recently set me thinking about families, and forgiveness, and welcome. One of Balanchine’s masterpieces, Prodigal Son, a seminal collaboration with Prokofiev, Diaghilev and the Fauvist artist Georges Rouault, was on offer. First choreographed in 1929, the ballet remains provocative and fresh; each dancer creates anew the roles of the Son, the Father, the Siren, the Sisters, the Servants, the brutish companions, and, on each reviewing, one experiences anew the rebellion of the son, the excitement of new places, the shame of dissolution, the anguish of exile and then the profound power of forgiveness, all in a compressed physical and musical package that is unparalleled.
Although the piece belongs to New York City Ballet, it is performed at other companies with varying success. This iconic ballet is dependent on human interpretation, and unfortunate casting can make a huge difference. NYCB often gets it right, as it did in the casting of Anthony Huxley this week. Last fall, American Ballet Theatre revised its production with Daniel Simkin as the Son – a petite Russian-trained jumper with virtually no emotional communication in his DNA – and this yielded a lifeless and soulless ballet. The same company, some years ago, featured the very great Herman Cornejo in the same role; he combined breathtaking virtuosity with a complex understanding of the Son’s journey. You could feel the heat rise as he encountered the Siren, a crystal-cool, tall, pale Michele Wiles, and the subsequent sexual awakening was palpable. In the end, pulling himself with a stick, he made that slow, pained crawl across the floor and up into his father’s arms utterly devastating.
What is remarkable about the story is the father’s forgiveness and kindness to his son. In the biblical source material – it appears as a parable Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 15:17-20 – the word used is “compassion”
But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.
What a wise father, to welcome back his sad and bedraggled son, who has clearly experienced so much misery. It speaks not only of familial loyalty and the compelling bond between parent and child; it speaks more broadly of the deeply Christian value of extending help to the needy, the rejected, the stranger. It is not difficult to make the mental leap to our own country, to its promise of haven inscribed on the Statue, its Constitution written with Enlightenment values, its Declaration born out of a rejection of the religious and economic persecutions of old Europe. To turn away from those who hope, who suffer and travel and wait, is to turn away from the very core of our own definition. We are Americans, strong and healthy and so, so fortunate. Like the Father in the story, it is for us to open the door and extend our arms and say, “Welcome home.”
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2017. Reuse with permission.
Photo credit: CNS photo/Hosam Katan, Reuters