DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition
Text and Variations
Prodigal Son, Agon
by George Jackson
Three viewings of Dance Theatre of Harlem's new Apollo staging this season left me confused as to what was the choreographic text and what were performance variations. Compared to The Prodigal Son, which looked textually quite uniform whether dancers as different as Peter Boal or Damian Woetzel at New York City Ballet or Duncan Cooper or Rasta Thomas at DTH were in the title role, the effect of DTH's Apollo performances was almost that of three different ballets.
In all versions of the Balanchine/Stravinsky ballet, the young god Apollo auditions the three muses. They perform for him as he sits on a stool on the right side of the stage. In DTH's New York premier, Rasta Thomas's Apollo did not look at them while they performed. He stared out into the theater, his face towards the auditorium's left rear corner. His eyes did not focus on the audience but seemed to look beyond. Yet he was aware of what the muses, to his right and rear, were doing. It registered, subtlely, in his features. The effect was eerie, as was Thomas's entire performance. The god's daemon seemed to speak through him.
Opening night in Washington (Tuesday, June 8, 2004), Thomas was in the role again but it was not a duplicate performance. Facial expression was more pronounced and specific. Was this because of a vaster house and having to reach the topmost gallery? Apollo's demonic gaze was there, but from the middle of the orchestra I had to use binoculars to see it. The stool on which Apollo sat while the muses performed was further back from the lip of the stage than in New York, and it wasn't at all clear whether he was looking at them or not. When the last of the three muses, Terpsichore, performed for him the head of Thomas's Apollo nodded slightly in approval or in rhythm to her steps. Overall, Thomas was very pliant yet not as powerful as he'd been in New York. The effect was that of ritual drama, not of an otherworldly experience.
Two nights later, Thursday, June 10, Duncan Cooper's Apollo definitely seemed to be looking at the muses, all of them, as they performed. His was a very human Apollo, and rather than awesome in serious moments, he seemed cross.
To settle where Apollo is supposed to look during the audition of the muses, I asked Arthur Mitchell, the company's director, catching him on the fly following DTH's final Washington performance on Sunday, June 13. Mitchell said that Jacques D'Amboise, who had coached this Apollo, was quite clear that Apollo is not supposed to look at the first two muses during their variations, yet he senses what they are doing. Only when Terpsichore appears, do his eyes focus on her.
Word got out that Thomas practiced for this Apollo staging not just by rehearsing the dancing but by doing facial exercises "to achieve the mask of Apollo". For half an hour after getting up in the morning, he was said to have stretched and limbered his face muscles. Supposedly the advice to do this came from Mitchell. However, to my question whether this was so and where the idea came from*, Mitchell said he didn't remember giving such advice to Thomas or his other Apollos but that it seemed a logical thing to do.
For the record, Cooper's Prodigal on opening night was very likeable, and Thomas's two nights later was astonishing—danced big and acted ravishingly. When, peering over the tabletop, he first sees the Siren, his eyes lit up like a little boy's. As the naughty Prodigal, he gains our sympathy. As the penitent Prodigal, he displays the pain of martyrs in Gothic carvings. Caroline Rocher, the Siren to both Prodigals, blended self-absorption and enticement perfectly. At the closing performance, Thomas in the Sanguinic section of Balanchine's The Four Temperaments was fleet and musically vivid. Paunika Jones, his partner, seemed to enjoy competing with him. Andrea Long's Choleric had a wild streak, and Ramon Thielen gave Melancholic an ever so gentle sadness. The women of the corps had to reflect and counter all the temperaments, which they did with style.
*Mime classes frequently prescribe facial exercises and warm-ups.
Photo note: There were no photographs of DTH's production of Apollo available.The photo on the DanceView Times front page is a contact sheet of Rasta Thomas. This, and other images of the dancer, can be found in the Photo Gallery at RastaThomas.com .
©2004 by by DanceView