Prokofiev's "Le Pas d'Acier"
Every balletomane can name at least five lost works of the past they would love to bring back. This desire can become an obsession, as the balletomane pours over old pictures and literary accounts.
Musicologist Simon Morrison, theater historian Lesley-Anne Sayers and ballet excavators Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer have made this sort of ballet detective work their profession. They were brought together at Princeton University in order to revive Serge Prokofiev’s infamous Soviet ballet, “Le Pas d’Acier (The Steel Step),” originally conceived in 1925, and their efforts were on display Saturday night at the school’s Berlind Theatre.
“Les Pas d’Acier,” as intended by Prokofiev and Soviet Constructivist artist Georgii Yakulov, was to be a celebration of Soviet industrialization. The ballet was to have its premiere by Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballet Russes in Paris and move on to London before being unveiled in Moscow, where Prokofiev hoped it would please the local politicians. With choreography by Leonide Massine, the work was a success in Europe, but it was changed from a celebration to a satire on the Soviet system. Instead of raising his esteem in the eyes of the Soviet leaders, Prokofiev—who wanted to work in Moscow—was criticized.
The Princeton team hoped to produce the ballet that Prokofiev and Yakulov envisioned, not the work the Ballet Russes performed.
This project was Morrison’s baby. He is an assistant professor in the Department of Music at Princeton University and his focus has long been on Prokofiev’s work. While Morrison was investigating “Le Pas d’Acier,” Sayers spent eight years researching and creating models of the set using drawings and photos discovered in archives in Paris, London and Armenia. When Morrison convinced Princeton University to mount the work, Hodson and Archer were brought in to produce the choreography
Hodson and Archer are old hands at this sort of work, having “reconstructed” many ballets, including Vaslav Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” George Balanchine’s “Le Chant du Rossignol” and Jean Borlin’s “Skating Rink.” Archer recreates the sets and costumes while Hodson reconstructs the choreography and stage action. In my eyes, some of their work has more validity than others. For Balanchine’s “Cotillion,” Hodson had film and the recollections of several former dancers of the work to bring the ballet to life. For Nijinsky’s “Jeux,” she only had photographs and articles. That’s like reviving a work by Shakespeare without Shakespeare’s words; it can only be a “re-imagining” of the original piece.
Hodson, freed from actually having to recreate Massine’s choreography, based her movements on stage directions in Prokofiev’s score and the movement styles of the mid-to-late 1920s. She had the 30 dancers, students at Princeton’s dance and theater department, watch Russian films of the era and there is more than a hint of the gymnastic style of choreography being developed at the time (and as can be seen in Balanchine’s “The Prodigal Son,” choreographed two years after “Le Pas d’Acier’s” debut). The makeup and costumes give the impression the dancers jumped off a Stenberg Borthers poster.
“Le Pas d’Acier,” is a series of scenes in two acts. The first part is set in Russia at the time of the famine just after the revolution at a train station, the second in a factory. The opening tableaux features organized chaos of beggars, thieves, an intellectual who is shoved off to Paris, vendors and commissars. It resembles the opening of Michael Fokine’s “Petrouchka.”
A beautiful worker girl enters the platform, where she is unimpressed with the intellectual but catches the eye of a returning sailor. The two perform a pas de deux without touching. They dance side-by-side or she performs a “supported” arabesque with her hand hovering over his supporting one.
The final scene shows the triumph of the worker over adversity and an amazing set with turning cranks, spinning wheels and flashing lights. The dancers themselves become part of the machines, with their arms winding and swinging legs. Work comes to a halt when the director of the factory announces the factory is bankrupt and has to be closed. The distraught workers chase the director away but squabble in their efforts to re-start the machines. The Worker Girl and boyfriend, the sailor-turned-factory hand, save the day with their “Soviet” optimism.
It is very easy to roll one's eyes at the goings on in this ballet. History did not prove to be on Prokofiev's side and the sunny Soviet hero and heroine share a resemblance to Hitler youth. But the dancers' devotion to this project really gave the work its lifeblood. Although it was a university production, feet were pointed and positions were tightly held. This was a real ballet, not an artifact. Hodson's choreography won't necessarily set the world on fire, but it captured the feel of the time period. Although the dancers wore jazz shoes, this is a ballet requiring ballet technique. Whether it has a life outside academia or disappears again, like the Antony Tudor work "The Planets" reconstructed at Duke University in 2002, remains to be seen.
Natasha Kalimada, as the worker girl, was properly sassy while Silas Riener provided more than a dash of Bolshoi-style heroism to the Sailor. Jamaal Antonio Clue, who portrayed the head Commissar and a factory worker, displayed high, crisp entrechat sixes.
Photographs from "Le Pas d'Acier" ("The Steel Step"), Princeton University, by Denise Applewhite (2005)