Philadelphia Ballet
The Academy of Music
Philadelphia, PA

May 9, 2024
Prodigal Son, The Dream

Sigrid Payne DaVeiga

Opening night of Philadelphia Ballet’s The Dream was a rainy and cold one in Philadelphia. Entering the Academy of Music, audience members were greeted by the magical window displays of Oksana Maslova as Titania and Jack Thomas as Oberon in their lush and verdant floral fairy costumes. The images were a delightful reminder that the joy of spring might finally be here in what has been a decidedly chilly and unpleasant spring in Philadelphia. I, for one, had a warm sense of gratitude to Philadelphia Ballet for placing these images on Broad Street and sprinkled through the city this season as a harbinger of good things to come.

Zecheng Liang in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

This evening’s first selection was Prodigal Son, one of George Balanchine’s first ballets to achieve an international reputation. The ballet, which premiered in 1929, is set to Sergei Prokofiev’s musical score and marks the only collaboration between the two.

Prodigal Son is a standard selection in Philadelphia Ballet’s repertoire. Prior to watching this evening’s production, one might have assumed that the company had largely mastered this historically important work over time and might not offer a fresh perspective or highlight anything new. The dancers in tonight’s production, though, flipped this notion on its head, presenting a fresh and raw take on the characters in Prodigal Son.

Zecheng Liang danced the role of the Prodigal Son, masterfully interpreting this character over the course of  the tale’s three scenes. His initial act of rebellion in leaving home, his  utter euphoria as he begins his raucous journey, and his heart-rending return home were all portrayed with complete emotional vitality. His talent and strength as a dancer were on full display. The minimal yet effective costumes, designed by French expressionist painter Georges Rouault, bared Liang’s legs entirely so that every muscle and minute movement was visible. Watching his leaps and jumps provided a sheer thrill of witnessing athletic and artistic beauty.

Zecheng Liang and Philadelphia Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Rouault’s minimal set design has helped render the production enduring and iconic; the sets are consistent and recognizable and critical to the storytelling. One item functions as a fence in the first and last scenes but is flipped upside down and becomes a banquet table and then a wall in the second scene. While one might barely notice the set piece because the dancers so expertly flip it and rotate it, the structure was one of those impeccable details that was not lost tonight.

In the closing moments of the second scene, Liang clearly infused his characterization with the sense of destruction that has overtaken him. Stripped bare and held upright only by a wall, he seemed to try to climb the wall to escape his horrific shame, in the process creating the illusion of desperately hanging by one arm in utter defeat. When he then falls and tries to rise, his despair resonated through the entire theater. Liang ultimately pulls himself off the stage using the strength of his arms, realizing he has been left devoid of everything. The pathetic way that his legs dragged behind him exemplified the sorrow a man who has even been stripped of the ability to stand.

Zecheng Liang in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

When Liang begins his journey home as the Prodigal Son, which in truth is just the distance across the stage, he made the audience feel that we were struggling on a long and treacherous road with him and that at any moment he might not make it. The strength required to hold onto his walking stick and pull himself so that his toes barely touched the ground seemed unfathomable.

Liang’s passion for his art and his technical ability to expertly strike every movement was breathtaking, but it was his complete surrender to the telling of this tragic tale that made the story reach a completely different level this evening.

Dayesi Torriente, Zecheng Liang,
and Philadelphia Ballet
in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Dayesi Torrenti, an impeccable match for Liang in Prodigal Son, danced the role of The Siren. Prodigal Son’s press release from Philadelphia Ballet contained a disclaimer that the piece is intended for mature audiences and parental discretion is advised. This seemed a reasonable point to make about the piece, while the Siren’s costume is decidedly conservative in that only the flesh of her arms, neck and face show, the sinewy lines drawn over her white legs and her long red cape which she twisted around her body are seductive in their suggestions.

Dayesi Torriente, Zecheng Liang,
and Juan Montobbio Maestre
in George Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Moreover, Torrenti’s Siren aroused provocative and smoldering emotions and her interplay with Liang consumed the space entirely, one could not look away from them. Liang’s reactions to her perfectly captured the sense of a man being entirely seduced. Torrenti’s craft as a dancer was undeniable, every extension, turn and intertwining of her limbs with Liang’s masterful in the way of a true expert. Torrenti’s presentation of the iconic moment when the Siren pours the wine into the Prodigal Son’s mouth as he lies outstretched on the banquet table and she is carried in a standing position across him was magnificent in the most delightfully dark way.

The audience welcomed the transition to The Dream, choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton, the second selection in this evening’s production and a delightful Shakespearean comedy full of fantasy and make believe. The Dream’s sets and costumes immediately transported the audience to a delightfully lush forest full of fairies. The sets and costumes, designed by David Walker, were impeccable in their detail and beautiful fantasy. Oksana Maslova as Titania deftly led the fairies, with Jack Thomas as Oberon. The corps’ beauty as the dancing fairies was matched by the sounds of the angelic voices of the Chorus, directed by Elizabeth Braden. The unexpected euphony overlaying the already scintillating and flowing grace of the fairies’ dance created the sense of being transported to a truly magical place.

Oksana Maslova and Jack Thomas
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Maslova’s dancing captured her flowing grace through every port de bras and reach of her fingertips, her feet unparalleled in their extension and flexibility peeking out from under gorgeous green and floral fairy dress. Thomas’ Oberson was playful and clever and his interplay with Maslova felt charming and sweet. Thomas’ made it look easy to deliver such prowess and technical precision in his dancing while enjoying the storytelling of The Dream.

Ashton Roxander and Philadelphia Ballet
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

Ashton Roxander’s rendition of Puck truly captured the audience’s heart this evening. Roxander’s powerful jumps and turns while expressing so much jubilation as this mischievous character were utterly refreshing and so much fun to see. He really exploded on stage with a fireworks-like quality and his interpretation of Puck, an antithesis to the despair of the Prodigal Son, left the audience with a feeling of buoyancy which was welcome before leaving again into the rainy cold night. Another highlight in tonight’s production of The Dream was Jack Sprance as Bottom when he was transformed into the Ass. The giant donkey head that he wore looked so unwieldy, yet he managed to deliver an exceptionally clean and impressive variation en pointe, and his partnership with Maslova while under her spell captured the comedic silliness of Shakespearean intent all while dancing with exceptional skill.

Oksana Maslova and Jack Sprance
in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream”
Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

After experiencing the heavy weight of the powerful storytelling in Prodigal Son, The Dream provided a nice light lift to end Philadelphia Ballet’s 2023-2024 season and gave audiences a sense of magic to look forward to in the 2024-2025 season.