To conclude its 2021–22 season, Miami City Ballet reached back to the early career of George Balanchine. Centered around his 1929 piece Prodigal Son, an embellished retelling of the parable from the Gospel of Luke in which a forgiving father welcomes home his wayward son, the four-part program opened at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach. Prodigal Son, Balanchine’s second major work, premiered with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in what turned out to be its final Paris season. Balanchine brought the work to New York five years later, in performances with his short-lived company American Ballet. In 1960 he restaged it for the New York City Ballet starring Edward Villella, who later became the artistic director of Miami City Ballet from 1985 to 2012.
In this piece, Balanchine explored a more athletic and even sexual dancing style than nineteenth-century ballet scenarios had permitted. To emphasize the young man’s wanderlust, the wiles of the siren who tempts him into ruin, and his degradation at the hands of ne’er-do-wells, Balanchine borrowed moves from gymnasts, acrobats, and circus performers to deliver gut-wrenching moments with a ferocious passion. The scenes of drunken revelry and sly seduction contrast with the son’s homecoming. In a departure from the Biblical source, the son implores forgiveness from his father rather than simply receiving the grace of unconditional love.
Superb recreations of Georges Rouault’s colorful and highly imaginative sets offered a stylized Biblical setting that nevertheless deftly avoids the kitsch that became a staple of Hollywood depictions of antiquity. Sergei Prokofiev wrote the accompanying Le fils prodigue suite, which is full of jagged rhythms and deft harmonies, but the final production did not correspond to the composer’s expectations. In fact, Prokofiev was so disappointed that he refused to pay Balanchine royalties for his choreography and later repurposed much of the music for his Symphony No. 4 (1930).
In this performance, Alexander Peters conquered the title role’s broad range of action and emotion with stunning concentration and admirable leaps. Dawn Atkins’s Siren was very much his equal in artistic prowess as she ensnares him. The corps de ballet administered their abuse with exquisitely timed assaults, their footfalls landing perilously close to Peters’s prostrate body. The Father does not have to move much, but Cameron Catazaro’s performance was compellingly faithful to the character in the parable.
Prodigal Son would have stood well on its own at Miami City Ballet, but balletomanes who wanted to see it had to wait until the end of a long program that featured three contemporary pieces. Claudia Schreier, the choreographer in residence at Atlanta Ballet, opened with the world premiere of her new creation, The Source. An ensemble piece for sixteen dancers, it is set in a modern industrial port on a cold morning and is saturated with grief. Eight main dancers are shadowed by phantasmal figures who attempt to lead them into a spirit world where they might achieve catharsis. Neither their quest nor Schreier’s ballet is much of a success. The figures seem to end up more damaged in the end, perhaps as a consequence for asking too many questions, while the ballet is so overburdened by Alex Basco Koch’s intrusive projections that our eyes are drawn away from the dancing and onto computer graphics that are rarely more than abstractions. A musical pastiche arranged by the Miami City Ballet music director Gary Sheldon from the works of composers as diverse as Riley Mulherkar, Frank Zappa, William Grant Still, Alexina Louie, and Julius Eastman is confusing and directionless.
Sheldon’s talents with the orchestra were on better display later in Prodigal Son, but also in two shorter pieces by Christopher Wheeldon and William Forsythe respectively. Wheeldon’s After the Rain, which premiered in New York in 2005, is a refreshingly naturalistic piece, with lithe, organic movements suggesting the residual raindrops after a downpour. It is a lengthier piece in full form, but its pas de deux conclusion is often performed as a standalone piece, as it was here. The modern Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s accompanying music, a violin and piano duet titled Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror), came to Wheeldon’s attention when a friend sent it to him to relieve stress. Its therapeutic simplicity was well conveyed by the gentle movements of Catazaro and Hannah Fischer.
Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman Duet has a silly title, and the ten-minute pas de deux (as revised in 1999 from a 1992 piece for five dancers) lived up to it. Forsythe himself reportedly said that his piece means nothing, which, like the Seinfeldian “show about nothing” trope, raises the natural question of why anyone would care to see it. But it does mock balletic conventions in a diverting way. Gianni Versace, who was murdered outside his South Beach home in 1997, did not live long enough to witness the current crisis in Ukraine, so it is likely a coincidence that his costumes, contrived in collaboration with Forsythe, suggest the colors of that much-beleaguered country’s flag. If they were tweaked more recently to that effect, however, it might have been de trop to dress Chase Swatosh, the male dancer, in a yellow skirt to the music of a quirky Thom Willems electronic tune called “Just Ducky.” “We can just laugh at it,” said a spectator at intermission. And so we did, before filing back in for the long-awaited Balanchine.