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This article by Euna Kwon Brossman was prepared for the April 6,

2005 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

At Last, Prokofiev’s ‘Lost Ballet’ Lives Again

The idea itself was fantastic in the true sense of the word fantasy –

the pursuit of a dream that others shrugged off as impossible,

idealistic, and at the very best, difficult. The tall order? To

recreate one of the great lost ballets of the 20th century, "Le Pas

d’Acier" or "The Steel Step," by legendary Russian composer Sergei

Prokofiev. But Simon Morrison, an assistant professor at Princeton

University and one of a handful of Russian music experts in North

America, was undaunted by the idea of tilting at windmills.

Armed with a passion for burrowing into the past and what he calls an

obsession for tracking down lost choreographies, he took that fantasy

from idea to reality, engaging scholars from Princeton University and

other institutions around the world to painstakingly recreate the

ballet’s choreography, costumes, and intricate mechanical set the way

its creators had conceived it. It took three years, but the fruits of

those labors will grace the Berlind Theater stage April 7 through 9,

with a staging of Prokofiev’s work in what is essentially its world

premiere since it was never performed the way the composer intended.

"There were logistical issues, limited resources, and for a long time,

it really was a fantasy, simply a nice thing to talk about," says

Morrison. "It became real when the funding came through. The

university was extraordinarily generous and when the university became

excited about the possibilities, I had the moral support I needed. It

was a great way to encourage the development of performing arts on

campus and also something that was fundamentally for our students.

This project has been a happy preoccupation."

This happy preoccupation began in 2002 when Morrison was researching

French and Russian ballet for a book he was writing. His quest was to

find out to what extent surviving musical scores would allow for the

reconstruction of so-called "lost ballets." In the course of his

research, he encountered the work of theater historian Lesley-Anne

Sayers, a teacher at the Open University in Britain who had written

her dissertation on "Le Pas d’Acier," and spent eight years

researching and creating models of the set. "She and I hatched this

idea of trying to stage this thing," says Morrison.

"I do a lot of research in Russia and research is such a solitary

business. One gets a lot of time to meditate. This project has been

public and has involved a lot of collaborating so it’s been the

opposite kind of experience. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to take

research done in archives and transform it into practice. For a music

historian there is no greater reward," Morrison says. In addition to

the painstaking, solitary research, much of it done in cold and

uncomfortable places like an unheated library in St. Petersburg,

Morrison has planted both feet firmly into his work, so to speak,

taking ballet lessons in London and at the Princeton Ballet School –

just so he could gain a deeper understanding of the art. In diving

into Prokofiev’s work, he immersed himself into the history of the

post-Russian Revolution setting of Prokofiev’s lost ballet.

‘The magic of this production is that you can’t tell if it’s

pro-Bolshevik or anti-Bolshevik," he says. "Our staging is about the

mechanics of the victory but because it’s dance, it’s also about the

mechanics of the human body. The ballet represents the human body as a

machine. What shows on stage is the way external objects influence our

human behavior and how that behavior can influence the outside world."

According to a prepared statement by the university, the choreography

has been recreated using cues and stage direction from the original

musical score by Prokofiev, which also contains a number of musical

gestures that translate into movements on the stage. Also critical to

bringing the lost ballet back to life were drawings and photos

discovered by Sayers in archives in Paris, London, and Armenia. The

$45,000 set, built with designs drawn from her extensive research, was

constructed by members of the McCarter Theater staff and overseen by

Darryl Waskow, managing director of the program in theater and dance

at the university.

"It’s a colorful world of spinning objects and special lighting

effects," explains Morrison. "Objects turn and evolve. There are

signal lights and turbines, pulleys, levers and conveyor belts, all

symbols of factory life. Partway through the ballet an eight-foot-tall

replica of a train that emits steam from its funnel comes into view.

The action takes place in a Soviet factory. In the original plan it

was an abstract setting characterized by lots of red. Today’s version

is set in Russia as a metaphor."

While Prokofiev viewed himself first and foremost as an operatic

composer, his greatest success lay in composing music for dance. He

created some of the most compelling ballets of the 20th century

including "Romeo and Juliet" and "Cinderella." When it comes to the

post-revolution Russia of the mid-to-late 1920’s, explains Morrison,

there was a sense that the arts were free and experimental. "This is

when the form of art known as socialist realism flourished, combining

elements of constructionism and futurism. The state encouraged the

creation of proletarian art." "Le Pas d’Acier" was in fact the third

of eight ballets that Prokofiev composed.

‘The theme was supposed to be abstract and non-political, a

celebration of Soviet industrialization that Prokofiev hoped would

endear him to Russian authorities. A factory, created with great

splashes of color, would represent the new reality of mankind, a

playground for the imagination." Morrison says that while Prokofiev

wasn’t trained as a dancer, his music lends itself in amazing ways to

modern dance because it is comprised of hard driving, rhythmic

patterns, fixed repetitions in the melodic and harmonic writing,

kinetic and physical for performers and listeners.

Many Russians, including Prokofiev, had ended up in Paris after the

revolution because it was the great cultural mecca of the time.

"Georgi Yakoulov, a set designer and a painter by trade, teamed up

with Prokofiev and came up with this idea of creating this truly

fantastic spectacle that would appeal to audiences in both Russia and

France," says Morrison. "They developed the storyline, and left it up

to the Ballets Russe, the great European ballet company, to bring the

production to the stage. But the company’s impresario, Sergei

Diaghliev, decided that for Parisian audiences, the revolutionary plot

was passe. He thrived on creating scandals and with this work he

succeeded by reconfiguring it to be deeply political." It would turn

out to be, in a sense, a harbinger of events to come – the Stalinist

era, the crackdown on the arts.

Budget constraints also meant the ballet had to be scaled down. The

version that was performed in Paris in 1927 mocked industrial

development. "It was a representation of the Soviet workplace, in

reality, an accurate reflection, but it didn’t go over very well with

the Soviet authorities," Morrison says. "Its debut caused a political

scandal and was a dramatic setback for Prokofiev’s plans to return to

Russia to be his country’s leading composer, forcing him to put off

his return for several years. He was disappointed with the Paris

premiere because he thought the choreography didn’t respect the music

and was unimaginative and confusing. The fiasco of the premiere

haunted him."

There were two later stagings in New York and Philadelphia – in 1931

by the League of Composers and another in Paris in 1948, says

Morrison. "But none of the stagings had anything to do with the

original conception by Prokofiev and Yakoulov and in fact got farther

away from that playful, abstract, and non-political version."

Morrison’s staging is truer than any other ever produced. "I think

Prokofiev would think it was wonderful," says Morrison.

If there were any music scholar who would be able to resurrect the

long-lost dream of a long-dead composer, it is Morrison, who lives in

Princeton with his wife, Melanie Feilotter, who works for Bloomberg,

and a cat. He was born in suburban London but grew up in Canada. His

father was a psychiatric hospital administrator and his mother was a

nurse; both are now retired. A faculty member at Princeton since 1998,

he studied music history and literature at the University of Toronto

and earned a language diploma at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute.

While an ungraduate music major at Toronto he says he became smitten

with modern Russian music, which prompted him to learn the Russian

language. He interest in Russian music grew as a master’s candidate in

music history at Canada’s McGill University. He earned an M.F.A. in

music history at Princeton in 1994, followed by a Ph.D. in 1997. He

has published extensively on Russian music, often on topics

long-neglected or considered esoteric.

He says he is excited to be bringing a great ballet, lost for so many

generations, back to life again for a new generation of dance lovers.

"What we’re going to see is a two-act ballet. In the first act we’ll

see various characters in a rural setting, which we can call

pre-revolutionary Russia. Then there is a wonderful transformation

where we see these rural types become industrial workers. The

characters build their factory. They build their new reality by

building the set on stage. They are seen in a positive Utopian play

space."

The ballet is short, about 40 minutes long. Instead of the typical

intermission where the curtain comes down, the curtain stays up for

what is known as the entr’acte, translated as "between the acts,"

where the transformation takes place quite literally.

In the second act the hero and the heroine, a sailor and a cigaret

girl, are revealed in their new guise as factory workers and their

relationship is consummated. "Imagine a disorderly, chaotic society

where two people are attracted but cannot connect," says Morrison.

"When these characters become part of a harmonious collective, they do

connect. The individual desire is fulfilled through the collective.

The individual and collective good are one and the same and that’s an

argument for socialism."

The production draws from all corners of the Princeton University

campus for talent. The dancers are students who have been taking an

advanced contemporary dance class taught by renowned London-based

choreographer Millicent Hodson. Hodson, who has worked with the great

ballet companies of the world including Russia’s Kirov Ballet,

England’s Royal Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet in New York, was given

a fellowship by the Humanities Council of Princeton that allowed her

to create the choreography with students.

Rebecca Lazier, one of the Council’s lecturers and Ze’eva Cohen,

coordinator of undergraduate dance studies, were also involved with

the collaboration. Ingrid Maurer, a New York City costume designer,

created the costumes using drawings and photographs from the 1927

production. Prokofiev’s score will be played by 60 musicians from the

Princeton University Orchestra led by Michael Pratt.

Morrison says his greatest pleasure has been working with the

students. "I’ve been watching the rehearsals, and they have been

marvelously reactive. They leave the rehearsal humming the cacophonous

factory music, and it is a delight beyond measure." He is also

thrilled that he and Sayers could translate academic research into

performance and practice and hopes that this world premiere will only

be the first of many performances for audiences around the world to

enjoy. "I think it’s likely the piece will be picked up by another

ballet company," he says. "The most important part of the piece is the

blueprints for the set. It is a set-driven ballet. The set, the

scenario, and the score are the three most important elements. If

another company in the United States or Russia picks it up, the main

contribution that Princeton will provide are the diagrams of what

these things look like."

Morrison says it’s been a journey that’s sometimes been frustrating

but ultimately fruitful, and an unforgettable opportunity to grow even

deeper as a scholar. "This so far is my one and only experience in

creating a work like this. The process is as important as the result.

No matter what happens in April with this risky, fabulous experience,

it will be great."

"Le Pas d’Acier," or "The Steel Step," by Sergei

Prokofiev. Thursday through Saturday, April 7 to 9, 8 p.m., Berlind

Theater at McCarter Theater. A restaging of the 1925 two-act ballet by

Prokofiev, with Princeton University student dancers and the Princeton

University orchestra led by Michael Pratt.

Also to be performed, "In the Moment," music by Paul

Lansky, choreography by Mark Haim; "Coracle," music by Barbara White,

choreography by Terry Araujo; "Transparent Body," choreography by

Rebecca Lazier, music by Dan Trueman, and "Island," choreography by

Ze’eva Cohen, music by Igor Stravinsky. For tickets call 609-258-2787.


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