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Book Reviews

The Paris Opera Ballet, by Ivor Guest

Prokofiev's Ballets for Diaghilev, by Stephen D. Press

Reviewed by Leland Windreich

Two recent publications offer insights into the significance of Paris as the cradle of ballet. Ivor Guest, who has written thirty distinguished scholarly studies of various aspects of ballet in England and France, has created a capsule history of the oldest and most revered dance establishment in the world. Guest, who turns 86 this year, knows the material covered in this volume so well that he could have written it with one hand tied behind his back. His history is strictly for the popular trade: there are no references or bibliographic notes. Readers wanting to know his sources or to investigate any of the issues he discusses will have to go to his scholarly output.

Ballet began in France at the court of Louis XIV in 1669, and Guest accounts for its development to the present century. In its transference from court to theatre in the late 18th century, it had flourished in a series of venues, at least two of which burned to the ground. Today the company trains and performs in two magnificent theatres: the opera house designed by Charles Garnier, which opened in 1875, and the Bastille (1992).

As a theatre art, ballet has undergone a series of metamorphoses which are relative to the changing times and it seems particularly vulnerable to the pressures of vogue. Louis XIV established ballet as a noble performance vehicle for the male dancer and ballet achieved supremacy over the opera, a form considered vulgar by the court.

Once established in the French theatre, ballet competed with the emerging opera establishment, and the introduction of accomplished female dancers changed both the focus and issues of the ballets. From La Camargo in the Baroque era to the arrival of the Romantic ballerinas in the early 19th century, women achieved prominence in the productions, which were designed to display the innovations they employed. La Camargo raised the ballerina's skirt to display the swift and brilliant footwork for which she was famous while Taglioni was among the first dancers to perform en pointe in a newly designed slipper.

The stories and plots of ballets, originally dealing with subjects from classic mythology, turned to mundane themes, as exemplified by the post-revolutionary "La Fille mal gardee," only to be supplanted by the Romantic subjects involving supernatural females that dominated the first half of the 19th century. Male dancers, many serving as accomplished choreographers, continued to perform with authority until the middle of the century when the supply of boys at the ballet school became decimated.

Guest scans the artistic issues of the periods, introducing the dancers, choreographers and composers who thrived in each wave. Most intriguing to this reader was the account of the company's activities in the last century, one which witnessed the rebirth of the Paris Opera Ballet as a center of production and innovation after a long stagnation..

The arrival in Paris of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in 1909 was the catalyst, with its magnificent productions and its impressive vehicles for the male dancer. Two Russian directors of the POB enriched the objectives of the company: Serge Lifar, who served the company from 1930 to 1958, and Rudolf Nureyev, 1983-1989, leaving indelible marks on its history.

The appendices Guest offers are fascinating and useful. There is a list of every ballet produced by the POB from 1776 (“Medee et Jason") to 2004 ("La Septieme Lune"), as well as lists of four centuries of star dancers, guests performers, and ballet-masters. There is also an account of those ballets which have been performed more than a hundred times. "Coppelia" is the winner, with 826 performance since its creation in 1870.

Stephen D. Press is a musicologist, currently a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, and his book, with its long sections of analyses of Prokofiev's scores for the ballet, might at first intimidate the average reader of books on ballet. But he writes in a genial and friendly style in his telling of the sixteen-year association of composer Sergei Prokofiev and the celebrated ballet impresario, Sergei Diaghilev, and the first half of the book is full of scintillating accounts of the relationships of the artistic factions that thrived during the post-war era in Paris. He has drawn on many sources, including the composer's own diaries, letters to and from associates, commentaries by critics and rivals, and a thorough investigation of the documents of the era.

As a ballet composer, Prokofiev is known today primarily for his epic score for "Romeo and Juliet" and for his popular "Cinderella." Both have been mounted by ballet companies all over the world. These and "The Stone Flower" were composed during his later residence in the Soviet Union and are evening-length productions in the format popular in Soviet ballet.

But before he decided to return to the country of his birth, he enjoyed a brilliant career as a world-touring pianist and composed many of his major symphonic works and operas while living in the West. In 1914, the peripatetic composer met Diaghilev during a season of the Ballets Russes in London and shortly established himself as his "second son" (Igor Stravinsky, a discovery of Diaghilev who had already produced scores for three remarkable ballets for him, was the firstborn).

Their relationship seemed to thrive on ambivalence. Diaghilev considered Prokofiev at times a genius but did not hesitate to proclaim him an imbecile when the mood arose. One of the areas of conflict was the composer's inclination to eschew Russian folk materials in his composition, preferring a less objective musical style. Diaghilev's ballets thrived on allusions to Mother Russia, particularly in the early years of the company's residence in Paris.

The impresario edited, censored and altered the composer's output, ultimately rejecting the first project of their collaboration -- a ballet to be called "Ala i Lolli." The work, based on pre-Christian folklore, was never finished, but the resourceful composer salvaged the four completed segments for an orchestral presentation which had great success under the title of "The Scythian Suite."

Oddly, Prokofiev, often depicted as an impetuous and opinionated man, acquiesced to his mentor's direction without becoming indignant. All three of the one-act ballets he created for the Ballets Russes were realized under situations fraught with problems, both artistic and political. The first of these was "Chout" (Buffoon), which had its premiere in Paris in 1921 after a rickety period of production. Based on a Russian fairy tale, it deals with the shenanigans of a group of buffoons with a magical life-restoring whip. The Russian painter Larionov supplied a brilliant cubist decor, but the ballet, assigned to an inexperienced choreographer named Tadeusz Slavinsky, bombed after its premiere.

Leonide Massine, who had been estranged from Diaghilev at that time, returned in 1927 to collaborate with Prokofiev in "Le Pas d'acier," a controversial production which used constructionist sets to depict scenes from the life of Russian workers in the new Soviet Union. Massine, who had left Russia in 1915, had to call upon his fertile imagination to create the milieu of a society he had never observed The composer devised a score suggestive of the mechanization of life under Communism. The ballet had a moderate success but did not endure.

The young George Balanchine worked with Prokofiev in the final collaboration for Diaghilev, "The Prodigal Son," which has survived its 1929 premiere and has become a staple in the repertory of ballet companies all over the world. And while Prokofiev was pleased with his score, Diaghilev found fault with many passages and episodes.

The creation of the ballet became a battleground of conflicting opinions and when the composer saw its first performance, he was appalled by the erotic content (he had written music for a biblical parable) and the coarse, impressionistic designs by the French painter Georges Rouault. As for Balanchine, he was so incensed by Prokofiev's deprecation of his contribution to the work (in the composer's mind, a choreographer was nothing more than a hack mechanic who manipulated his immortal music) that he never used any of the composer's music in his 331 subsequent stage creations.

Press zeroes into the musical issues of the three ballets in the second half of his study, offering examples from the scores and comparisons to materials by other composers. The reader who has enjoyed so far his intriguing account of the collaboration will find additional anecdotal material in these pages to keep him reading.

The Paris Opera Ballet, by Ivor Guest. Dance Books (U.K.), 2006. 150 pp. illus. ISBN: 1 85273 109 5. $39.95.

Prokofiev's Ballets for Diaghilev, by Stephen D. Press. Ashgate Publishing, 2006. 294 pp. illus. ISBN: 0 7546 0402 0. $99.95.

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