Ballets generally live or die according to their place in the repertory. Let too many years slip by and suddenly, in spite of the best intentions, a ballet has become “lost,” the province of history books and photo archives.
That might have been the fate of George Balanchine’s “Cotillon,” one of the most conspicuously lamented “lost” ballets of the 20th Century. But thanks to a couple of amateur films, the remembrances of a few performers and two dedicated and experienced historians, the work has been reconstructed. It will be given its Los Angeles premiere during the Joffrey Ballet’s spring season at the Music Center beginning May 9.
“Cotillon” was created for the inaugural season of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1932. Balanchine choreographed its central role on Tamara Toumanova, at 13 one of the three soon-to-be famous “baby ballerinas.” (The other two, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Irina Baronova, also performed leading roles in the work in the years following its premiere.)
It became a staple of the Ballets Russes repertory as the company toured Europe, North and South America and Australia. Its last known performance was in 1946.
The eminent critic Edwin Denby called “Cotillon” the glory of the company’s repertory and wrote that “this piece profoundly affected the imagination of the young people of my generation.”
In her book “De Basil’s Ballets Russes,” Katherine Sorley Walker wrote: “ ‘Cotillon’ has haunted the memory of everyone who saw it. Many feel that it should be revived.”
Balanchine himself was clearly not among those “many.” “He talked about the ballet, but he never talked about bringing it back,” recalls Barbara Horgan, the late choreographer’s longtime assistant and the administrator of the George Balanchine Trust.
But Robert Joffrey, whose fervent study of dance history resulted in many significant revivals that have helped shape the Joffrey Ballet’s profile, felt differently and had been trying since the mid-1970s to reconstruct “Cotillon.” Balanchine met Joffrey’s requests with amiable dissuasion (although Horgan recalls that Balanchine “was actually rather interested in the research Bob had already started”), but Joffrey continued to press the matter with Balanchine’s heirs, who eventually gave him the go-ahead. Last fall, half a year after Joffrey’s death, “Cotillon” went on stage for the first time in more than 40 years.
Dance historian Millicent Hodson and art historian Kenneth Archer, the team responsible for the Joffrey Ballet’s 1987 reconstruction of Nijinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” were enlisted by Joffrey to research and reconstruct “Cotillon.”
Joffrey’s preliminary research on the project had included making contact with former Ballets Russes dancers whose memories of the ballet could offer crucial guidance. In the fall of 1987, Hodson and Archer spent their final evening in New York getting a crash course in the ballet’s history and the available research material from Joffrey, who was already ill at the time.
“He mentioned various books and references, and the names of many former dancers. He wanted us to use the same techniques and methodologies we had used for ‘Sacre,’ ” Archer recalled.
Bringing “Cotillon” back to life presented a very different challenge from that offered by the “Sacre” project. In some ways, the Balanchine work offered a luxurious wealth of documentation: two amateur films from the 1930s were available. One was a black-and-white Australian one, which Hodson and Archer had to track down; the other was in color and is in the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library. Both are silent, brief and fragmentary, but both provided information from which the reconstructors could work.
“The essential style of the movement is very visible in the films,” remarked Hodson. But while they provided a valuable starting point, the films also left many gaps and discrepancies and required close critical scrutiny. The color film offered important information on the palette of the Christian Berard costumes and scenery, but Archer notes that it had faded considerably and was therefore not a completely reliable reference point.
In one filmed segment of the female ensemble, Hodson noticed that “if you looked at the girls during the opening movement, they were all doing it differently. You have 12 variations on one fact.” Balanchine’s ties with the Ballets Russes were abruptly
severed after that first season (he moved on to his next venture, Les Ballets 1933), and Hodson surmises that without his eye to keep the ballet in top shape, things had gotten a bit sloppy.
In teaching the work to the Joffrey dancers, Hodson had to select a convincing way to perform this particular movement--one of many such interpretive decisions she and Archer made.
They were aided in these decisions by a group of former Ballets Russes luminaries, whom they sought out and consulted in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and Buenos Aires. These included, in addition to the three “baby ballerinas,” Alexandra Danilova, Sono Osato and Tamara Grigorieva and Roman Jasinski; Boris Kochno, who created the scenario for “Cotillon”; and Antal Dorati, who conducted many performances of the ballet.
Having access to so many survivors with first-hand performing experience (after working on “Sacre,” from which no dancers survive) was a welcome luxury that also led, in some cases, to contradictory information. “We met with three generations of dancers who performed the ballet over a decade and a half, and the ballet had changed during that period,” explained Archer.
“ ‘Cotillon’ involved a very different kind of guesswork from ‘Sacre,’ ” Hodson noted. In some cases, she filled in missing material by working with the particular dancer involved; when there was a choreographic gap for two bars of music, she asked Tina LeBlanc, who dances the Toumanova role, what felt right with the music and in keeping with the surrounding steps.
The ballet’s haunting, mysterious “Hand of Fate” pas de deux called for quite a few interpretive decisions. Beatriz Rodriguez, who performs it (with Glenn Edgerton), remembers that each of the veteran dancers who came in to offer help with that section presented a slightly different version. After collating all the available information, she and Hodson tried to synthesize them according to “what looks right and creates the right illusion. We’re still working on some of those ideas, to create more of that atmosphere,” Rodriguez explains.
Atmosphere is a key element of “Cotillon”; its quasi-narrative depiction of a young girl’s coming-out ball was cherished primarily for its undertones of decadence and ominousness within a surface of youthful frolic.
The ballet represents an intriguing period in Balanchine’s career, one that found him between his stint as Diaghilev’s house choreographer--which culminated triumphantly with “Apollo” (1928) and “Prodigal Son” (1929)--and his arrival in America, where he created the repertory by which he is known and measured today. Some have speculated that “Cotillon” was so much of its particular time and place--Europe in the final moments of the 1920s’ heady glory, on the eve of political turmoil and war--and so bound up with the baby ballerinas that it had outlived its persuasiveness.
Hodson, while recognizing that “Cotillon” is very much the work of a European Balanchine who predates the master of speed and angularity he was later to become, sees the seeds of several subsequent Balanchine works in “Cotillon.” The section for the women in the cast, subtitled “The Magic Lantern,” is the model for “Serenade” (1934), in her eyes.
When Darci Kistler, the current New York City Ballet principal who was something of a “baby ballerina” herself in the early 1980s, saw the Joffrey production of “Cotillon” last fall, she found elements she could recognize even though she felt the ballet was clearly from a different era.
“I could see similarities with several other ballets. Some of the steps and the eeriness of it reminded me of ‘La Sonnambula (1946).’ It’s very witty and glamorous; I found it was like looking in at a beautiful world you’d like to get into.”
Kistler was wary of comparing the ballet’s technical demands with today’s ideas of Balanchine technique because “those ballets evolved and changed under his guidance and tutelage. I didn’t look at it to compare it with a Balanchine ballet of today that . . . people have looked at every night year after year. It is something that will grow with the company.”