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Massine's 'Les Presages'February 2007, Chicago


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#1 Natalia

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Posted 19 February 2007 - 11:22 AM

Appointment with Destiny in Chicago:
Impressions of the Joffrey Ballet’s Revival of Les Presages

February 17, 2007 (matinee and evening performances)
Auditorium Theater
Chicago, Illinois

Within my travels around the globe in search of reconstructions of great ballet choreography of the past, my recent trip to Chicago to see Leonid Massine’s hallmark work of 1933, Les Presages, will forever remain one of the grandest experiences of my wanderings. My eyes have finally viewed the first and most celebrated of Massine’s symphonic ballets created for the De Basil Ballets Russes (and similar troupes) of the 1930s and 40s. The breadth, elegance, emotion and power of this 45-minute ballet that is set to Tchaikovsky’s complete Fifth Symphony surely marks it as one of the grandest – and perhaps most overlooked – of 20th-c. balletic masterpieces. How lucky for us balletomanes to be living at this moment, when we can see the true Petipa ‘Sleeping Beauty’ at the Kirov, Ashton’s ‘Sylvia’ at the Royal Ballet or ABT, parts of Didelot’s ‘Zephire et Flore’ in Novossibirsk, Lopukhov’s ‘Tanz-Symfonie’ in Tokyo, the full ‘Paquita’ in Paris, Balanchine’s ‘Don Quixote’ with the Farrell Ballet in Washington, DC, Robbins’ complete ‘Dybbuk’ at NYCB and, now, ‘Les Presages’ – revived this season following its reconstruction in 1989 by Tatyana Leskova for Paris, immediately followed by the first Joffrey staging in 1992. The Joffrey’s stager of the work, Cameron Basden, recently set it on the Bolshoi…but that version eschews the magnificent original surrealistic designs of Andre Masson, which can only be seen at the Joffrey. Hence, as far as this viewer is concerned, the ‘real thing’ exists only at the Joffrey.

Plot & a Bit of History

‘Les Presages’ is an allegory on the power of the human spirit to overcome hatred and adversity. Massine has created truly unique movement – a blend of the lyrical-balletic and the expressionist-moderne styles. The ballet could never be confused with Balanchine; neither is it a brash and biting dance-pantomime in the style of Kurt Jooss’ ‘Green Table.’ The latter work premiered in Paris just nine months before ‘Les Presages’ in Monte Carlo; Massine, in Paris during autumn and winter of 1932, may well have seen ‘The Green Table,’ whose central character of ‘Death’ might have inspired some of the movements of the menacing villain of Presages (also a tall greenish creature named “Fate”). [The current Joffrey revival of Presages also presents Balanchine’s Apollo and Jooss’ Green Table – both performed admirably – but, to my mind, overshadowed by the Massine.]

The four movements of Presages are set to the correct order of the complete Tchaikovsky 5th Symphony:

1st – Action – A powerful female figure (“Action”) in a bright orangey-red Greek-style chiffon dress leads a corps de ballet (“Movement”) in fending-off soloist “Temptations” (two females and one virtuoso-male pas de trois team).

2nd – Passion – the leading heroine & hero of the ballet perfectly depict innocent love in a tender pas de deux. While cavorting among a corps of “Destinies,” the evil green character “Fate” intrudes on their joy and attempts to lure the female “Passion” to his ways but, in the end, she resists – a lovely moment when she breaks away from the monster & runs to her Hero, who lifts her high in the movement now known as a ‘presage lift’ in balletic parlance.

3rd – Frivolity – a waltzy, frothy diversion of giggling girls – led by a fleet-footed virtuosa ballerina -- symbolizing carefree ways. At first it seems an unnecessary segment but we later realize that it serves as a counter to the harshness of the next & final movement.

4th – War & the Triumph of Humanity over its Destiny – the most obviously expressionistic and powerful of all movements. The ‘green villain,’ Fate, lures men to battle. But, in the end, the three leading women – Action, Passion and Frivolity – inspire men to triumph in joy. Massine used the final segment of Tchaikovsky’s 4th movement to celebrate triumph as I have never before seen it on a stage – men hold aloft the female soloists, running at a furious pace across the stage as each lady, one by one, is ‘rocket-propelled’ from stage-right to stage-left, her chiffon costumes billowing in the wind behind them, as Tchaikovsky blasts from the orchestra pit.

Choreographic Gems

Massine combines elements of lyrical (traditional soft & flowing) ballet with choppy, sharp arm movements, foot-stomping marches and other hallmarks of German Expressionism, which was all-the-rage at the time in Europe. The 1st movement’s central female figure of “Action” is almost Duncan-esque in her initial commanding movements.

Massine uses the image of the circle a lot – big circular patterns for the corps abound, echoing the circles and swirls in Masson’s backdrop. Then he surprises us with lilting entrechats and pirouettes for the figure of Frivolity in the 3rd movement – seemingly first-cousin to Amour in Petipa’s Don Quixote!

Massine uses the corps in ingenious ways – sometimes an aggressive, robotic juggernaut of an army, other times like fairies prancing in the wind. Very often the choreographer breaks the corps into clusters of four or six dancers, each cluster echoing a certain phrase or set of instruments in the rich texture of Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. One could look at this ballet a dozen times and still discover new ‘clusters of movement’ with each viewing, I suspect. [It must be an incredibly tough ballet to stage. My hat’s off to Ms Basden!]

So many choreographic gems in this ballet – but my favorite, by far, is the aforementioned moment near the end of the 4th Movement (finale) when those female soloists are rocketed across the stage as trumpets blare! Then there are the two ‘presages lifts’ in the 2nd movement, then the entrance-diagonal on pointe of the Passion couple, and the 1st movement’s virtuosic ‘Temptation Trio’ with the central male performing numerous sequences of 5-6 pirouettes followed by double-tours. I could go on and on.

Designs

I cannot imagine ‘Les Presages’ without the original Andre Masson designs – the swirling backcloth of purple-blue against black, accentuated by red and green comets and stars; also, the vivid costumes (although the tunic-dresses for the Joffrey’s corps ladies seem a bit lighter, in color and texture, than those in photos reproduced in books of the 1930s, and even seen, fleetingly, in last year’s documentary film ‘Ballets Russes’).

The tall female “Action” in the 1st movement resembles a Greek Tanagra figure (as we later see in Jerome Robbins’ “Antique Epigraphs”). The lyrical couple (“Passion”) in the 2nd movement sport a short bright-red-and-beige tunic for her, and yellow leotard with red swirly symbol for him. In the 3rd section, Frivolity wears a short chiffon tunic in pistachio green and a white-feathered cap. The villain (“Fate”) wears a brownish patterned unitard that becomes green with the lights & sports a helmet of sorts. He could be brother of ABT’s Swan Lake ‘Swamp Thing/Von Rothbart’ or even a cousin to Death in ‘The Green Table.’

Just as important as the designs is the lighting which cleverly causes the backdrop & corps costumes to change colors and moods. This, too, is the 1933 original by Craig Miller – reproduced now by Kevin Dreyer.

Finally – The Dancing

The full forces of the Joffrey’s 49-member troupe (including Arpino Apprentices) populate the stage and do so magnificently. The ensemble is the true hero of the work, although many fine soloists were also on view during Saturday’s two performances. On the whole, I give the edge to the evening ‘crew’ – especially the lovely Victoria Jaiani and hero-perfect, tall Jonathan Drummar as the leading “Passion” couple, although Emily Patterson and Thomas Nicholas, in the afternoon, were mighty fine too.

In the evening, Allison Walsh’s Frivolity’s batterie and pirouettes were a bit cleaner than those of the pert Jennifer Goodman at matinee. Tall brunette Valerie Robin was a powerful “Action” in the evening – perhaps coming closest to the descriptions of Nina Verchinina in the 1933 original -- although I give the edge in 2007 to the matinee’s Maia Wilkins, a petite dancer whose arm and leg movements were crispest and most musical.

It’s hard to chose between either of the dancers portraying villainous “Fate” – Temur Suluashvili at the matinee is a bigger, menacing figure but John Gluckman, in the evening, had the higher jumps.

Calvin Kitten was his wonderful, high-flying self as the pirouetting, double-touring Temptation at the matinee while, in the evening, Mauro Villanueva, ‘cheated’ the landings of his tours a bit yet also left a favorable impression.

In Sum

It was a privilege and honor to have finally seen ‘Les Presages’ and to have seen it in the original designs, as performed by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. It makes we wish that, some day, the Joffrey Ballet or some other large troupe may be inspired to reconstruct other great symphonic ballets by Massine, such as ‘Choreartium’ (Brahms 4th Symphony), ‘Seventh Symphony’ (Beethoven) or ‘Rouge et Noir’ (Shostakovich 1st Symphony). It also makes me wish that the overly-conservative programmers at the Kennedy Center would have the courage to bring the Joffrey in an all-Massine program (Presages + Parade + any of a number of Massine treasures in its repertoire), rather than just the same-old (but nice) Nutcracker, every other year. How about it?

Natalia Nabatova
Washington, DC
February 19, 2007

#2 Treefrog

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 07:36 AM

Natalia, this is an incredibly complete review. I am in awe. I really have nothing else to add, except that it was captivating. I loved the combination of classical and ... I don't know, Art Deco? The arm positions and movements were stunning.

You are not the only one for whom Fate evoked the Swamp Thing. I said the same thing to my companions. The similarities with Death were also striking -- thank you for pointing out that Massine may well have seen The Green Table. I particularly noticed the "double clutch" cocked leg movement they both used.

I saw John Gluckman as Fate in the Sunday matinee. He was fabulous. The sinewy Mauro Villanueva did not cheat the landings on Sunday except once that I saw (but my eye is not well trained -- others may disagree). I thought he was well-suited to the role of Temptation, as was Gluckman to Fate.

I did not know about Massine's other symphonic ballets. I would love to see them now, especially Beethoven's Seventh.

#3 Natalia

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 08:48 AM

Thanks, Treefrog. There was almost too much for me to absorb in only two viewings. I really wish that the Kennedy Center would schedule this ballet (& other Massine rarities) for the Joffrey's next trip to this city.

Here's another interesting point that I've just remembered:

At the start of the 4th movement, the male corps rally like soldiers around the Hero to fend-off Fate (the villain). They stretch their arms up in what now appears to be the Nazi salute, although I doubt that Massine conceived of it thus. After all, those are 'the good guys' raising their arms in salute, ready to conquer Fate/Evil.

In 1933, the public at large (in Paris & London, especially) loved the ballet. However, the professional critics & the intelligentsia, in general, were divided. I have read somewhere -- in the 1990 'Ballet Russes' book by Garcia-Marquez, I think -- that some of the critics complained that Massine was being sympathetic to Germany.

Which leads me to --

Was there any 'political fall-out' against Massine, after 'Presages'? Did this have any bearing on why, in the long run, Massine's stature has diminished? Or perhaps his stature diminished simply because he was eclipsed by the brilliance of Ashton & Balanchine in their own abstract ballets in the decade or two that followed 'Presages'?

p.s. - One more twist: According to the recent documentary film, Ballet Russes, Massine was instrumental in the ousting of Balanchine as the leading choreographer of the De Basil-Blum troupe. Perhaps Massine burned bridges & pro-Balanchine critics never forgot? Shame - there's room in the history books for both choreographers, IMO.

#4 Treefrog

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 08:56 AM

I have a question -- in the backdrop, there is a drawing that could, possibly, maybe, be seen as evoking Hitler. What I'm thinking of is the "eye" on the right side, with something that might call into mind a moustache below it. Anyone else see this?

OTOH, it is also reminiscent of Joe the Camel, so it's possible I'm reading too much into it.

#5 Natalia

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 09:27 AM

That's interesting, Treefrog. I saw only clouds & the cosmos above (those shooting stars & such), with water-like swirls below. We need a psychiatrist! :wallbash:

#6 Dale

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Posted 20 February 2007 - 11:15 AM

Thank you Natalia for such a complete description. I would love to see a Massine symphonic ballet revival. I saw the Cincinnati Ballet perform Seventh Symphony, which was reconstructed by use of film and Frederic Franklin. It was not what I expected: some big overblown extravaganza that would pale in comparison to musical choreographers Balanchine and Ashton. But I was wrong -- it was so musical in a different way to Mr. B and Mr. A.

#7 Helene

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 02:23 AM

Thank you Natalia! What a great description that is a fantastic resource for Ballet Talk.

#8 bart

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 06:59 AM

It was not what I expected: some big overblown extravaganza that would pale in comparison to musical choreographers Balanchine and Ashton. But I was wrong [ ... ]

Maybe that expectation comes from Massine's own rather overblown attempts to describe and give significance to his work. Perhaps its best to leave a piece of art to speak for itself, as clearly happened this month at the Joffrey. Thanks, Natalia, for your very evocative review of what actually unfolded on the stage. :clapping:

#9 Mel Johnson

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 08:20 AM

– a lovely moment when she breaks away from the monster & runs to her Hero, who lifts her high in the movement now known as a ‘presage lift’ in balletic parlance.


I always thought that there was a bit of visual punning going on at that point in the ballet, between "Presages" and its near homonym, "pressage".

#10 sandik

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 11:58 AM


– a lovely moment when she breaks away from the monster & runs to her Hero, who lifts her high in the movement now known as a ‘presage lift’ in balletic parlance.


I always thought that there was a bit of visual punning going on at that point in the ballet, between "Presages" and its near homonym, "pressage".


Ouch!

#11 Cliff

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 09:26 PM

In the first act, the dancers were often in profile with arms angular and bent. It reminded me of the stereotypical Egyptian walk. Is this an intentional reference to Egypt?

#12 carbro

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Posted 21 February 2007 - 09:36 PM

I have been sitting here in awe not only of the great response to this restaging, but of Natalia's incredibly detailed and vivid description. And I fervently hope that somewhere, somehow, someone understands its historical and aesthetic value and records it for all to see. And that it is recorded and edited with the uppermost aim of allowing us to appreciate the choreographer's work, not the cinematographer's.

#13 Natalia

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Posted 22 February 2007 - 07:06 AM

..... I fervently hope that somewhere, somehow, someone understands its historical and aesthetic value and records it for all to see. And that it is recorded and edited with the uppermost aim of allowing us to appreciate the choreographer's work, not the cinematographer's.


That, too, is my great wish, Carbro. And, if professionally filmed for public release, that it be the Joffrey & not the Bolshoi's version with its (to me) awful plain unitards for both men & women, against a plain black background. I would feel terribly cheated, if that were the case.

As we all learned to appreciate with the Kirov's new-old 'Sleeping Beauty,' there is no substitute for recreating the original sets & costumes - those that we see when we pore over old books and photographs. Anything short of 'the real thing' would be cheating serious scholars and balletomanes of a complete treasure. My hat's off to the Joffrey Ballet for never lowering its standards when it comes to these reconstructions -- as did ABT last year with the new schmaltzy costumes of Polovtsian Dances or the Royal Ballet's pale modern costumes being passed-off as the Messell originals of the 1946 Sleeping Beauty.

The Joffrey's 'Parade,' 'Tricorne,' Boutique Fantasque,' 'Rite of Spring,' 'Cotillon,' and all other early-20th-C treasures faithfully recreate the look and the perfume of the original & not just the steps.

#14 motwins8391

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Posted 25 February 2007 - 03:10 PM

Here's another vote for a Joffrey recording of Les Presages. I saw it twice and it is a masterpiece, masterfully presented by both casts of dancers.

#15 sandik

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 03:39 PM

The Joffrey's 'Parade,' 'Tricorne,' Boutique Fantasque,' 'Rite of Spring,' 'Cotillon,' and all other early-20th-C treasures faithfully recreate the look and the perfume of the original & not just the steps.


Robert Joffrey was very particular about the visual component of these restagings -- his eye for costume and set detail was fierce.


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