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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
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
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."
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.
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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