Title: A night of Prokofiev
Author: Robert Johnson
Date: May 08, 2009
NEW YORK-- American Ballet Theatre's latest programming gimmick is a mixed bill dedicated to the music of a famous Russian ballet composer. The company produced a fascinating Stravinsky evening in 2006, and a stimulating program of four Tchaikovsky ballets returned this season.
Now ABT has turned to Sergei Prokofiev, and fortunately this composer's reputation seems robust enough to withstand the deadly "All-Prokofiev Celebration" that ABT released like a plague into the Metropolitan Opera House, on Monday. With Alexei Ratmansky's inept staging of "On the Dnieper," and James Kudelka's leg-clutching "Desir" on the loose, this program is enough like the swine flu to make viewers squeal.
The evening isn't a total loss. It opens with George Balanchine's "Prodigal Son," and Herman Cornejo, making his debut in the title role, gives a performance of wondrous dramatic clarity, stirring compassion for the lad who yearns for freedom but is undone when he falls into a nest of thieves.
Ironically, Prokofiev didn't care much for ballet. According to his biographer, Harlow Robinson, he hoped to be remembered for his operas. Yet today Prokofiev's reputation as a theatrical composer rests on the success of "Prodigal," the final masterpiece created for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1929, and on his "Romeo and Juliet" and "Cinderella." Prokofiev wrote more ballet music, but as the ABT program makes clear, nothing can be achieved in this line without a great choreographer to interpret it.
Ratmansky is not a great choreographer -- far from it -- despite the fawning that accompanied his appointment last year as ABT's first "artist in residence." Unlike his compatriot, Boris Eifman, whose "Onegin" sums up the tragedy of contemporary Russia while linking it to historic themes, Ratmansky's work is conceptually empty. In contrast with "Prodigal Son," in which each gesture and group leaves a searing impression, "On the Dnieper" lacks arresting images. Its movement invention is as drab as the gray fences in the little Russian village which designer Simon Pastukh has set in a nearly monochromatic spring landscape.
Dancers haul flowering trees and fences around, but although the scene shifts, the most remarkable alteration in the characters' circumstances seems to take place during a single afternoon. Sergei, a soldier (Marcelo Gomes), returns home, and before he has even removed his boots he has lost interest in his old girlfriend, Natalia (Veronika Part) and has upset the wedding plans of Olga (Paloma Herrera) and Olga's fiance (David Hallberg), not to mention upsetting all their parents.
Reunions, life-altering decisions and a betrothal ceremony are all crammed together senselessly with no one displaying a moment's hesitation. Fortunately two peasant lads are on hand to catch Sergei's mother when she faints. The choreographer has stationed them expectantly behind her, a laughable detail that betrays Ratmansky's cluelessness. The lovers' clucking, vodka-swilling parents wouldn't be in the piece at all, if it didn't have a void that desperately needed filling.
Reviving a little-known Prokofiev ballet score still seems like a good idea. His music for "Chout," "Le Pas d'Acier," and even "Ala and Lolli" are fair game. It will take a genuine choreographic talent, however, to bring these ballets to life.