A Classic’s Behind-the-Scenes Drama
The tangled themes of “Nikolai and the Others,” a new play by Richard Nelson, swirl around the making of “Orpheus,” a work born from one of the most important partnerships in ballet’s history: the choreographerGeorge Balanchine and the composerIgor Stravinsky.
The play unfolds during an imaginary weekend in the spring of 1948, when Balanchine, Stravinsky and other high-profile Russian artists living in theUnited States were becoming implicated in cold war cultural politics. They long for the old world while plunging into the new. The parallels with the Greek myth — in which Orpheus must avoid looking back at his beloved to keep her alive — are clear.
“There’s a deep emotion in ‘Orpheus’ that’s being reflected by its creators,” Mr. Nelson explained in an interview, “that sense of aching nostalgia, in a big, Russian way, which is a deep, deep sense of loss.”
In “Nikolai,”intertwined friends and lovers (the play includes 18 speaking roles) have gathered in a languid country house setting. Balanchine has brought his two leads, the Americans Maria Tallchief and Nicholas Magallanes, to show some of the dance to Stravinsky. As in his “Two Shakespearean Actors” and his Apple family plays (“That Hopey Changey Thing,” “Sweet and Sad” and “Sorry”), Mr. Nelson layers the stuff of daily life — eating, bickering, working — with sweeping cultural events.
“The context of the play, the effort of the play, is to create a world of complicated human beings where art is part of the life,” he said.
Here’s a look at several key characters involved in the making of the ballet within the new play, which opens Monday at LincolnCenter’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater.
Dancers on the Job
MARIA TALLCHIEF (Natalia Alonso) and NICHOLAS MAGALLANES (Michael Rosen)
While this pair isn’t as psychologically complex in the script as are many of the Russians, audiences will get to know them in another way: through the dancing of Ms. Alonso and Mr. Rosen. These two are tasked with capturing the essence of first-generation City Ballet royalty. (Ms. Alonso has danced with Ballet Hispanico and Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and Mr. Rosen trained at the prestigious, CityBallet-affiliatedSchool of American Ballet.)
The play includes three sections of the 30-minute “Orpheus,” which these days is often described by critics as a historical relic. At the 299-seat Newhouse, audiences can watch portions of the ballet without the famed Isamu Noguchi set and costuming.
“They’re in the barn just rehearsing,” Mr. Nelson said, an unusual chance “to see it raw that way, and so close, so close, like you rarely see ballet.”
Tallchief, who died just last month, is in particular a towering figure in American dance. One of the country’s first true ballet stars, she danced first with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, where she met Balanchine. She was a muse and then his wife (from 1946 to 1950), part of a recurring pattern in Balanchine’s life, to which “Nikolai and the Others” obliquely hints.
Balanchine Takes a Step
GEORGE BALANCHINE (Michael Cerveris)
Balanchine’s standing as one of the great artists of the 20th century was far from certain in 1948. But for a select audience in New York, it was clear that something remarkable was afoot.
“Orpheus,” which had its premiere April 28 at the City Center of Music and Drama, so captivated Morton Baum, the chairman of the City Center’s executive committee, that he asked Balanchine’s company, Ballet Society, to be the theater’s permanent ballet troupe. And so, on Oct. 11 of that year, the storied New York City Ballet was born, on a night that featured “Concerto Barocco,” “Symphony in C” and, of course, “Orpheus.”
“His belief of what it was to make dance was so huge: it was religion, it was life, it was everything,” Mr. Cerveris said. “For someone who’s functioning on that level, anything that gets in the way is something to be ignored or overcome, and anything that’s not an aspect of that just isn’t really worth his attention.”
Mr. Cerveris, known for roles in “Sweeney Todd” and “Assassins,” said it was daunting to portray such a figure, whom he briefly encountered thanks to his sister, who danced with City Ballet from 1982 to 1991.
“I remember being in class one day when Balanchine came in, and I’ll never forget,” he said, chuckling. “You could just feel the temperature in the room change. All of the girls all of a sudden were six inches taller.”
Stravinsky, the Partner
IGOR STRAVINSKY (John Glover)
“Once the avatar of a primitivist-modernist Russia, Stravinsky ended up as the perfect cosmopolitan, everywhere and nowhere at home,” Alex Ross writes in “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.” By 1948 the composer had lived in the United States for almost a decade; it had been nearly 30 years since he left Russia for France.
In Mr. Nelson’s play, he and his wife, Vera, have traveled to Westbury, Conn., to work on “Orpheus” but also to see the painter and set designer Sergei Sudeikin, Vera’s first husband, who is in failing health. (In reality, Sudeikin died in 1946, and Stravinsky got his preview in New York.)
“Orpheus” was the first Stravinsky score to be commissioned by Ballet Society. He and Balanchine worked closely on it, during a high-stakes chapter of their enduring, galvanizing partnership. Of their first major collaboration in 1928, Balanchine put it quite simply: “I consider this the turning point of my life.”
This symbiotic duo wasn’t always pleased by the contributions of other artists,
however talented. Noguchi’s décor for “Orpheus” included cumbersome face coverings.
“Orpheus has a mask,” Stravinsky notes, true to life, in the play. “Makes him look like a catcher on a baseball team.”
At Margins, But Central
NIKOLAI NABOKOV (Stephen Kunken)
“You need help, Nicky is there to help.” So says Stravinsky early on in the play, talking about the Russian composer whose life and art were complicated by his involvement with the nascent C.I.A.
“Balanchine clearly is a man who lived his art,” Mr. Nelson said. “Nabokov was someone who got involved in the helping of artists, and possibly to the detriment of his own art.”
It’s not clear how much, if any, Nabokov — a cousin of the “Lolita” novelist — was involved in the making of “Orpheus.” In the play he is a complex, poignant figure behind the scenes.
“I’ve tried to not contradict what was known, but I filled in things,” Mr. Nelson said, describing accounts of Balanchine leaving rehearsal one day and returning with the funds needed to procure a curtain for the production. When asked where he got the money, the choreographer cryptically replied, “I didn’t rob a bank.”
“I have gone further,” Mr. Nelson said. “I have given an explanation of where that money came from.”
Published: May 2, 2013 – NYT