Return of the ‘Prodigal (Son)’

The New York City Ballet’s 2021 Digital Season programming for the week of February 22 through 27 is most apt for Lent, a season of repentance and (we hope) forgiveness. It centers on one of NYCB co-founder George Balanchine’s greatest works, “Prodigal Son,” which he created for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1929.

Working with a poignant score by Sergei Prokofiev and stained glass-like backdrops by Georges Roualt, Balanchine pared the traditional Gospel story – often read in churches at this time of year – eliminating the elder son and instead giving the Prodigal Son two compliant sisters to keep the focus on the Prodigal, his dissolute interlude and his reconciliation with his father. (Also, we need to remember that ballet companies, particularly in those days, have always had more women than men, so it helped to feature women in a tale that is actually devoid of them in the Gospels.)

The roles of the Prodigal and the Siren who tempts him have been danced by some of ballet’s most luminous stars, including Serge Lifar, Jerome Robbins, Edward Villella, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell and Maria Kowroski. I remember with particular fondness a 2008-09 performance with Damian Woetzel, now president of Juilliard and the best, most organic dancer I have seen to date, as the Prodigal. The moment at the end in which he made his way across the stage on his knees, arms behind his back, as the music urged him on, only to collapse before the godlike father who lifted him up into his arms and covered him with his cloak is etched in memory. At the performance I saw, the two men sitting next to me wept.

“Prodigal Son” will do that to you. On Monday, Feb. 22, a new episode of City Ballet The Podcast will feature former NYCB principal dancer Edward Villella, for whom Balanchine revived “Prodigal Son” in 1960.  On Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m., NYCB will present an Inside NYCB” episode focusing on the Siren, with rehearsal footage and interviews with principal dancer Maria Kowroski, corps de ballet member Christina Clark and repertory director Lisa Jackson. On Thursday, Feb. 25, at 8 p.m. , NYCB will release a previously recorded performance of “Prodigal Son,” with principal dancers Daniel Ulbricht and Teresa Reichlen in the leading roles. 

Both the “Inside NYCB” episode and performance stream will be available to view on NYCB’s website and YouTube channel until Thursday, March 4. 

“Prodigal Son” is the first ballet to be featured in the multi-part series “Three Sides of Balanchine,” exploring the choreographer’s narrative, classical and neoclassical traditions. It will be followed by “Theme and Variations” and “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” in subsequent weeks.  

NYCB’s digital season also includes “Ballet Essentials” workshops for all ages on Mondays at 6:30 p.m.; “Signature Steps” ballet classes for intermediate- to advanced-level dancers on Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m.; Access Workshops for teens and adults with disabilities on Thursdays at 6 p.m.; “Ballet Breaks” workshops for children ages 3 through 8 on Saturdays at 11 a.m.; and Children’s Access Workshops for children with disabilities and their families on Saturdays at noon.

 For more, visit nycballet.com/digital season.

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