Scetch by Millicent Hodson
Curiously, Prokofiev’s Western ballets were often presented in venues of less than ideal size, e.g., Prince’s Theatre in London. Not so for the first American production of Le Pas d’acier that was mounted on the vast stage of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. The Berlind Theatre actually has a rather large stage given the intimate size of the hall (capacity 360). The lack of a pit, however, forced the orchestra to perform in very cramped quarters in the stage left wings. Michael Pratt remarked that conducting a ballet without seeing the dancers was “pretty awful”. He added, “had it been something like Swan Lake, it would have been impossible, but with music that is basically always tempo giusto, it was bearable. The dancers learned quickly to adjust.” Amplification was used because the orchestra sounded “muffled” in the house, according to Pratt. Perhaps to prove to any sceptics in the audience that live music was indeed being used, Pratt had all his forces come on stage, instruments in hand, to share the applause at the end of the third and final performance.
Some space was saved by reducing Prokofiev’s instrumentation of woodwinds, a task which was admirably achieved by Princeton graduate fellow in composition, Greg Spears. Prokofiev’s original scoring had been used in a concert performance of Le Pas d’acier given by the full, 90-piece orchestra the previous autumn. Pratt remarked that despite the use of different versions in different venues, no changes in balance were needed and that only minor tempo changes were made to accommodate the dancers. The added experience with the score no doubt contributed to the very convincing musical performance of this none-too-easily performed piece.
Pratt didn’t find this score “as virtuosic as Romeo and Juliet”, but admitted “Prokofiev always has particular challenges with his orchestration. Often things are very sparsely scored and thus very exposed, leaving little room for error. Sometimes it is the opposite – so much going on that prioritizing voices is challenging.” The dancers had a somewhat different opinion of the music; for example, one of them remarked that it took a considerable amount of listening in and out of rehearsal to master its irregular counts, the trickiest being “the 6 count measures [that] were embedded in 4’s and 2’s and vice versa”.
The student dancers’ enthusiasm during the brief but intense rehearsal period won the hearts of everyone involved, not the least of choreographer Millicent Hodson. What they lacked in professional polish they more than made up with their earnestness and creativity. The rehearsals began only at the start of the semester in January and were but a part of the dancers’ daily lives as majors in such fields as sociology, chemistry, molecular biology, anthropology, physics, electrical engineering, and so forth. Due to the scarcity of time they voluntarily remained on campus during Spring Break, the only period during which they could rehearse uninterrupted. In the three main roles Silas Riener was the “Sailor Hero” turned factory worker, Natasha Kalimada, the “Worker Girl”, the object of his affection, and the “Orator” was played by Jed Peterson, complete with his “boomeranging book”. Everyone else danced dual roles: as vendors, thieves, black marketers, hungry citizens, etc. in the first part, and as factory foremen or workers in the second. Everyone had his or her own identity, be it “samovar person”, or “coat rack person”, etc., and each prop helped personalize its carrier’s movements. And move they did! In almost every scene the stage was teeming with activity.
Despite the clangourous sounds of the “Reconstruction of the Décor” and the final factory numbers, this was the score in which Prokofiev redirected his style towards a “new simplicity” with heightened clarity and expressive lyricism. An example is his first ever pas de deux, a gorgeous number composed for the Sailor and Female Worker in part one (No. 6 in the score, “Matelot à bracelets et ouvrière”). The staging, not music, provided the challenge here: the original scenario states that they are not to touch each other! Not knowing what Iakulov and Prokofiev had in mind was turned into a strength. Natasha Kalimada recalled that “we had to create our energies individually in space; but this is very atypical to what I’m accustomed to when physical reliance on one another creates the dance”. Hodson had the Orator and a female member of the old intelligentsia remain on stage to provide occasional support for the two lovers. The production team had felt that another “outsider” was needed, so they invented this suitcase-carrying female character, a “collector” who combed the stage gathering anything she felt she might someday need. She was but one of many humorous touches in the production. That humour was to be an integral part of this production was signalled at the start. During the Prologue two classically moving female dancers in crinoline skirts joined the cast procession across the stage behind a scrim, their sole purpose being to mock traditional tutu-clad ballerinas.
Other highlights of the first act include the arrival of the train at the end of No. 2, headlight beam through the mist first, then the full, smoke-bellowing engine coming into view, and the activity under the platform as thieves and gamblers play cards and stash stolen loot. Popular elements of Western ballet of the 1920s were employed, including cinematic slow-motion, “freezes”, contorted body positions, machine dances and gymnastics. All was not modern choreography however, as Hodson had the Commissars dance in classical steps because they represent authority. Their rather limited success as authority figures led to more humorous antics on stage.
Challenges particular to this ballet and its production were dancing on the small elevated platforms and the gymnastics movements which included much use of a set of rings and a rope ladder. In the second act the dancers worked at or mimicked factory machines using the full depth of the stage and the platforms. Hodson explained in a New York Times interview that “in Act II, the individuals of Act I become a part of a collective, building a new society”. When the factory comes to a halt, the drive wheel assembly hung from the flies suddenly disappears and the dancers become actors, bewailing their fate. But through sheer determination the factory comes back to life and during the climatic strains of Prokofiev’s music, colourful lights flash and the names of the sponsors rendered in Cyrillic are projected on the walls. At the end the Orator returns via the aisle to the front, the factory director stands nearby and the dancers freeze at the score’s final chord.
Overall the production was a tremendous success and kudos to all concerned for their outstanding effort. It is unfortunate that there was not a bit more preparation time available. Some of the action in the final minutes, while powerful and engaging, was somewhat vague, the procession sequence in particular. But it may simply have been overly stylized. The programme book stated: “In the distance, a procession of Soviet pioneers becomes audible. The hero and heroine appear at the head of the parade, and urge the workers not to succumb to their sorrow.” According to the Worker Girl, “while the workers created sculptures with their bodies to form machines Silas and I appeared on the highest platform illuminated behind a scrim. As it rose, we began the procession, our holding of hands represented the hope that collective force would eventually overpower sorrow.” Kalimada describes the ensuing gymnastics session as “13 2’s in which every count had a distinct arm, leg and head position. In between we were supposed to execute gymnastic type movements in order to enhance the full effect.” The gymnastics sequence left one wanting more, whereas the procession left one somewhat puzzled. But in the end the brotherhood of all the workers (and of these students-turned-dancers as well) was nearly palpable.
Although the idea for the ballet was Diaghilev’s he had little presence in this production. Nevertheless he probably would have been pleased had he seen it. The version he mounted was short on human drama in its second act (so too, by accounts, Simonson’s and Strawbridge’s). This point was noted by the critics in their reviews; after the London première the Musical Times critic wrote: “There is a stupendous crescendo, in the midst of which the curtain drops, leaving you with an uncomfortable feeling that these poor wretches must continues their various tasks until the crack of doom.” Quite the contrary in Princeton’s production, it extolled humanity over machines. How that squares with the composer’s music is an issue for further consideration. And since the title Le Pas d’acier was Massine’s conception, one wonders if Ursiniol might have been more appropriate for this world première. But these niggling thoughts pall in the face of such an enormously significant achievement.
Those Prokofievians who came to Princeton for Le Pas d’acier collected memories to cherish for a lifetime. Those who now wish they had can at least visit the lavish production web site at www.pasdacier.co.uk. This was a dream come true – a full staging of one of Prokofiev’s most important works from his years in the West, and a glimpse at an exciting time. For their insights, courage and persistence realizing Prokofiev and Iakulov’s vision, we acclaim Lesley-Anne Sayers, Simon Morrison, Millicent Hodson, Kenneth Archer, Michael Pratt, the dancers, the musicians, and all those who assisted them. (Dare we hope that Prokofiev’s Chout and On the Dnieper also be given their due one day soon?)