Former Principal Dancer Riolama Lorenzo in Prodigal Son, choreography
by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. | Photo: Paul Kolnik
Philadelphia Futures: Sponsor-A-Scholar Student
Lincoln High School
Class of 2017
Prodigal Son: The Goons
We arrived at the Merriam Theater on chilly winter Sunday, but it did not affect the hum of excitement and anticipation in the air. Many were already lined up at the door, ready to file into the theater and watch some theatrical events take place.
After two amazing pieces, Polyphonia by Christopher Wheeldon and Shift to Minor by Matthew Neenan, the curtain reopened to reveal the first backdrop to Prodigal Son, by George Balanchine. Pennsylvania Ballet was honest and loyal to The George Balanchine Trust, keeping everything similar, if not the exactly same as the 1929 version.
This popular ballet first premiered on May 21 in 1929 at the theater of Sarah-Bernhardt in Paris. It was first premiered at Pennsylvania Ballet’s Merriam Theater on April 26 in 1989. This ballet follows the biblical parable of a young man who is blinded by the indulgence of his father’s inheritance which leads to a series of events that involve manipulation from the Siren and her goons, betrayal from his best friends, loss of his luxury and absolution from his father. Now in 2015, I, among the rest of the Philadelphia Futures Writing the Experience Club, had the chance to watch this tradition happen again.
My main focus of attention was on the Siren’s goons. They used the one prop to the best of their abilities whilst making their message and emotions clear through their movements and expressions. They were scary, creepy and spider-like due to their bald heads, green-blue costumes and savage movements. The goons reflected to me as a cult, all of them being submissive and working together to support one thing – the Siren. Many compared the characters to acts of Cirque de Soleil because of their eccentric ways of bending and using their bodies.
Their role in Prodigal Son was to befriend and manipulate the Prodigal Son. They appeared to be thieves or beggars in the beginning, sabotaging people for their goods. These goons seemed to win at the end when the Prodigal Son decided to make “a deal with the Devil,” being the Devil’s spawns of some sort, the Siren’s children. Observing the ballet, I pieced together that the goons were the main reason to why everything turned out the way it did.
Their obedience to the Siren and their “gold digging” nature seemed to reflect on their drunk and wild personas. The drunk companions of the Siren were played by these members of Pennsylvania Ballet; Edward Barnes, Alexander Hyman, Etienne Diaz, Michael Holden, Lorin Mathis, Alex Ratcliffe-Lee, Durabte Verzika, Alejandro Ocasio and Andrew Daly. Big congratulations and appreciation sent to them from me for their great reenactment of the goons. They are the reason why Prodigal Son has become one of my “must see” ballets.
Overall, Pennsylvania Ballet stayed true to the nature and origin of Prodigal Son and they did not disappoint the Philadelphia Futures Ballet Writing the Experience Club with their performance.
Philadelphia Futures: Sponsor-A-Scholar Student
Bodine High School
Class of 2016
Prodigal Son’s Essential Representation
It was a bitterly cold afternoon, the air itself was intriguing. I had entered Merriam Theater, with a ticket to behold a magnificent form of storytelling through dance. With my eyes, I witnessed the work of Christopher Wheeldon, Matthew Neenan and the world-renowned George Balanchine. After careful consideration, I devoted myself to telling the story of a representation discovered in George Balanchine’sProdigal Son.
Firstly, it is important to note that without prior knowledge of the biblical context surroundingProdigal Son, these themes and essential representations will be challenging to understand. In very lament terms, the story follows the actions of a very naive boy who leaves the safety of home to embark on a journey of manhood. He is then exposed to the underbelly of the world and essentially sin itself. Lost, helpless and abused, he returns to the safety of home where he leaves behind sin and is given grace and love, a feeling he had lost. In this performance, Jermel Johnson plays the role of the son. Jermel Johnson as the son represents ignorance and innocence in this performance.
To begin, the son’s actions should be noted. He is wildly energetic. His leaps are surrounding and surreal. The moment the son steps on stage, he is a flaming ball of energy, waiting to escape the chains of boredom, obedience and ordnance. His excitement is contagious as he quickly entices his two friends who are waiting for him to join them as he exits the house, as they too join in his frolic. The leaps, the smile, the enthusiasm and the extremely joyous dancing – which includes jumping a gate, dancing with friends and zealously, delightful music – all lead to one truth: the son is an innocent and excited boy, who only seeks new adventure and happiness outside of home. His youth and innocence is proven further as he is halted by a very large, tall man who walks with dignity and the greatest amount of wisdom. Every movement he makes is calculated meticulously as each step is met with the grandiose sound of a horn, which adds to the greatness of his pride and age. It is concluded that this man is the father of the Prodigal Son and has some authority of the son. As the son nearly secretes humbleness and respect, he lowers to his knees to honor the man’s presence. This man, in a very meager form of concern, asks the son to stay, but the son refuses and returns to his leaps of excitement and continues on his new adventure.
Throughout the next few scenes, the son’s ignorance is displayed through his actions. He dances with sin itself, in a mystic woman called the Siren. His hesitation is proof of his confusion, and instead of taking greater caution, he does what he is asked by the Siren. He is completely engulfed in her atmosphere as she drags him around as if he is under some form of a spell, allowing her the greatest amount of control. He seems to be useless and focused; his gaze never leaves her eyes and his legs and arms are rather limp. He only moves in the direction she walks. When she lifts her legs to arouse him or catch his attention through her body movements, it is his only focus and he is completely oblivious to her motives. It is as if he has never seen a woman before, which is probably his circumstance. Earlier, in the son’s interaction with the goons, he ends up giving away all he owns and is eventually betrayed by his two friends. In this scene, he give away pots happily, which is all he carried on his trip, just to find peace and to fit in with the group, the goons. After he gives away all he has, his clothes are stolen and he is forced to literally crawl back to where he came from. He only has rags since all he had was stolen.
In one scene, the son is posted to the only movable prop, which resembles a crucifix. This silently says that his ignorance has led to the ultimate sacrifice, as the son is near death. He crawls home, his crawl lasting over the course of two scenes to add to the longevity of his pain and suffering. It also adds to the consequences of his ignorance. The son returns home badly weakened and battered, so much that he can no longer walk and drags himself to the feet of the Prodigal. The son seems to be ashamed and begs for forgiveness as he lifts his head in such a rained state that is pathetic. There is a feeling of sorrowfulness found within the atmosphere. The father then lifts the son who cannot walk and carries him into the home where he is nurtured. These last few scenes added to the danger of being ignorant as seen in this performance.
Needless to say, the son is the perfect representation of ignorance in Prodigal Son. He is a boy oblivious to the outside world who is warned by an elder and refuses to heed to ruling. He is then abused, literally beaten methodically by the goons and robbed by the Siren, which leaves him to crawl to home, where he had been told to stay the entire time.
Jermel Johnson was the perfect cast member as he truly stood out among the cast by his skin color and enthusiasm – and it was necessary for the son to stand out. All in all, this performance represented all the pieces necessary to complete the tale of Prodigal Son and was a legendary mimicry of the story told so long ago.
Philadelphia Futures: College Connection
Roman Catholic High School
Class of 2016
Prodigal Son was one of the most amazing performances I’ve seen live. I didn’t think watching a performance, a ballet performance to be specific, could be that emotional. After leaving the performance this past Sunday, I started to do numerous amounts of research on ballet – not only what ballet is, but what it means to people who invented it and things of that sort. This is something I would have never seen myself getting into, but it has motivated me to try new things.
At the performance we went to on February 8, 2015 at the Merriam Theater, we watched three very inspirational dances. During these dances, the many dancers wore some very simple and some very fancy costumes. The performance of Prodigal Son had three scenes. The first one was when the Prodigal Son got into a confrontation with his father and into something with two so-called friends of his. In the second scene, the son met a numerous amount of people where he engaged with them and eventually got into a little trouble. The third scene was the one that really caught my attention and made me emotional. In this scene the Prodigal Son returned home.
I feel as though the most important part and the part that caught me the most this past Sunday was the third scene where the son returned home after a long journey and begged for forgiveness from his father. During the whole third scene, I watched the son struggle. He threw himself on stage and his body language and look on his face was helpless. The whole last scene made me think he wasn’t going to make it out and get where he was headed. But then eventually, he made it back home to his father and his father forgave him. But as I sat down and watched it, I thought in my head, this whole play is based off of forgiveness. I just felt like he felt pain in all of his movements. When I walk around and feel pain, it’s because I have something I don’t want to bring out, like the son did at the end with his dad. It was amazing because in life, especially in mine, I feel that sometimes you just need to forgive and forget and carry on with life to be successful and have good relationships.
To me, the son represented someone who’s sorry and knows that he’s wrong at the end, but it takes a man to admit when you’re wrong. In relation to the whole story, I think he learned a lesson, and life is all about learning lessons from experiences. It was obvious he experienced and went through a lot on his journey. After the whole performance and watching the last scene, it honestly made me forget about the other two scenes because it was just really good. Prodigal Son was my first performance, and although I didn’t really know what to expect, it was a great show.
Philadelphia Futures: Sponsor-A-Scholar Student
Northeast High School
Class of 2015
Response to Prodigal Son
Despite the winter cold gaining admission through the front doors, the Merriam Theater kept its halls warm and glistening with the exuberance of spectators on the Sunday afternoon of February 8, 2015. Some of this radiating heat may have been a result of the anticipation many felt toward the performances that were going to be presented that day. Pennsylvania Ballet showcased a total of three ballets: Polyphonia (choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon), Shift to Minor (its world premiere, choreographed by Matthew Neenan), and Prodigal Son (choreographed by George Balanchine). The first two groomed the audience in both wonder and amusement as evidenced by their laughter in Polyphonia’smultiple acts and Shift to Minor’s abstract backgrounds and comical moments of movement. With Prodigal Son, however, it was more of a straightforward performance, with storytelling and pantomime as the main features. This may have been a result of its relationship with a biblical parable of St. Luke, which would be necessary to convey about the ballet as it builds upon that story. Both the ballet and the story revolve around the idea of forgiveness and redemption, as the Prodigal Son (played by Jermel Johnson) is a sheltered, young man who goes out into the world, only to be seduced and tricked due to his gullible personality. In the end, he finds himself crawling back to his village, groveling at his father’s feet for forgiveness. Throughout the performance, each character group represented a theme that is presented clearly when interacting with the others. One such character, known as the Siren (played by Amy Holihan), is a representation of desire. Due to her attire, specific movements, and juxtaposition with the background, the Siren embodies this trait of desire and demonstrates it well primarily by seizing people’s attention.
The Siren employs a series of courageous, rather revealing movements in order to bring attention to herself. For example, in the scene where she first appears (in which the son, his servants, and the drinking companions goof around after the son bribes them to be friends with him), she makes a daunting entrance, tiptoeing with slow, paused steps onto the stage, striding right in front of the other characters, capturing both their attention and the audience’s. From there, she essentially takes control of the stage. She does eccentric crab walks, wrapping her cape around her legs as she paces across the floor in no rush. She also seduces the son with her movements, placing his hands on her waist and holding them there, and having him lie onto her chest with her head raised, exercising power over him. The way she moves and forces herself on him is an act of both having desire and giving desire (the Siren gets closer to the son to get what she wants, while the son reciprocates in kind). This is successful depending on how convinced one is by this show of passion. I was, as those moments with the Siren felt worthy to be lauded due to the rawness of the moment; how a boy is getting his first taste of a love, and how lost he gets into it to the point where he loses his sense of identity. For those moments, the movements reveal much of the ballet’s method in terms of making the audience pay close attention to details, and work efficiently.
The Siren’s clothing choices add further speculation to her nature, as the color of her clothing in particular helps to state her as the symbol of desire. When she first appears on stage, she wears a jeweled crown with a matching necklace and matching tank top, with lattice stockings and a long, velvet purple cape. The red in her jewels and tank top are often associated with love and intense passion, while the purple of her cape represents royalty. Furthermore, the black stripes of her white stockings can be perceived as the loss of innocence; the pure white (which is considered holy, heavenly) of the stockings are now marked by black (which is seen as evil, filth). As such, the Siren’s clothes describe what power she holds and what she is capable of. Having such an attire only rivaled by the son (who wears a necklace and a tunic), the Siren easily overtakes him in terms of luxury (with the amount of material possessions she has), helping her be defined as an arguably more alluring character than the son. Thus, the Siren’s attire is both appropriate and well-suited to the role of seducer, as her flashing jewelry and interesting use of colors helps her to attain the attention of both the audience and the other characters.
The backgrounds that the ballet displays come off as a bit primitive in order to fit the parable’s time period, although many would instead choose an elegant setting for someone with the Siren’s clothing and style (such as a castle or a garden). Instead, the background she appears on happens to be the exact opposite; it is more like an older painting of a feast taking place near a tent. While this may seem appropriate to the drinking companions and the son, having the Siren appear in this setting seems to be such a large contrast that many people will immediately notice the differences. There is this particular juxtaposition of the antique and the elegant (although the two are not mutually exclusive) that makes the Siren stand out, maybe due to others’ preferences for “clean,” shiny objects (which would mean that the Siren is more appealing than the background and props). For example, the props of the wooden table, clay vases, and trumpets appear unfitting for the Siren, yet she uses them just the same when acting with the drinking companions. Because of this disparity, both the other characters and the audience prefer to watch the Siren, hence desiring her presence more than the objects. As such, the desire is one that arises from the beliefs of others as to what is appealing, and not just the Siren attempting to look better than her surroundings.
Reflecting once again on her movements, her fashion style, and her presence in a setting before the Common Era, the Siren stands out magnificently in her sense to be the concept of desire. The simplification of the ballet’s tools and props makes her attire and movements becoming intensely memorable and meaningful, like the piece of chocolate in a candy bowl with peppermints. This is a crucial part in getting the audience members to involve themselves in Prodigal Son as the dimensions added in terms of character comparisons and differences made for an authentic ballet, one which considers subtle hints as well as the general parable. One question that one could ask him or herself would be: How did this ballet emphasize the way I think about my preferences? Watching Prodigal Son, I could imagine my favoritism over this piece than the other two in the aforementioned aspects, which I believe made the ballet itself stand out in comparison. But, my opinion is just one out of millions, and is still subjective based on my experiences. People will prefer what they prefer.
Posted 23rd March 2015 by PA Ballet