“In the ‘30s,” Tatiana Leskova remembered, “there was the smell of blood in the air.” And that was what inspired Leonide Massine to create “Les Presages,” a groundbreaking 1933 work for the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo that reflected the era’s turmoil, exuding doomful between-the-wars portents.
Leskova joined the company in 1939 and was cast in corps roles in all four movements of the ballet, eventually taking the lead role of Frivolity in the third movement. In 1945, she became director of the corps de ballet for the Municipal Ballet Company of Rio de Janeiro and 10 years later was reunited with Massine when he arrived in Rio to restage his “Le Tricorne.”
“I said, ‘Why not do “Presages” for next season?’ He said, ‘Tatiana, I don’t remember a step.’
“I said, ‘Well, I will show it to you.’ Dancers have a good memory. The music is a great leader. You listen to the music, you remember one step. From this comes others,” she said. “It’s like doing a crossword puzzle.” She was aided by Nelly Laport, who had also been in the company. The women also had 10 minutes of film from the late ‘30s of the Ballets Russes dancing “Les Presages” in Australia.
During the restaging, Leskova would go to her former colleagues and ask them, “Do you remember this arm, this step?” The only part she re-choreographed, she said, was Destinies, for the corps de ballet.
“Les Presages” was unveiled for Leskova’s company in 1956. Rudolf Nureyev asked her to produce it for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1989. In Paris, she said, she received confirmation of the accuracy of her memory when some of the ex-dancers from the Ballets Russes saw the work. “They were crying,” she said happily, adding, “A person in a ballet is like a person from the family.”
Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Gerald Arpino had known about “Les Presages” for years. As a young man, he danced with two former cast members, ex-Ballets Russes dancers Nana Gollner and Paul Petroff. Arpino’s interest was whetted further in the early ‘70s when he worked with Massine on the Joffrey’s revival of “Petrushka.” Massine was keenly interested in reviving his symphonic works. Another Ballets Russes alumna, Tamara Grigorieva--who helped set the revival of George Balanchine’s “Cotillon” on the Joffrey--also urged Arpino to produce “Presages” for the company.
Now, the Joffrey is making “Les Presages” the centerpiece of its spring season, opening Friday at the Wiltern Theatre--the company’s first repertory season since being ousted from the Music Center (see schedule, Page 60).
“Les Presages,” set to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, takes as its theme man’s struggle against destiny. Against a multicolored abstract backdrop, the 34 dancers move through four scenes, corresponding to the symphony’s four movements.
Massine’s choreography was abstract, yet there were specific characters denoting the temptations awaiting man, the triumph of love over passion, a brief break for Frivolity, followed by the Hero’s conquest of Evil.
“Les Presages” created something of a scandal at its premiere. Some music critics attacked Massine for using a composition never intended for dance for his first symphonic ballet. Other reviewers took offense at the ballet’s militaristic conclusion, which includes symbols and choreography that might be interpreted as a tribute to Nazism--abstracted swastikas, Nazi salutes, goose steps.
The ballet’s florid qualities were mirrored by the intense colors of Andre Masson’s designs. In spirit, it referred to work common to the era’s German Expressionists, particularly choreographer Kurt Jooss, whose ballet “The Green Table” premiered in 1932. “Les Presages” influenced abstract, neoclassical works by other choreographers, most prominently Frederick Ashton and George Balanchine.
Leskova sees the choreography of “Les Presages” as “movement that has a meaning that is alive.” Although some of the movement embodies the mechanistic qualities of other art of the period--at one point the dancers form a line that looks like nothing so much as a locomotive--this is not movement that can be danced “like a computer,” as described by Leskova.
Leskova herself was a product of the period’s wars and enmities, she said recently in a telephone conversation from her home in Rio. Her parents were White Russians--a diplomat and a baroness--who had married in 1917, left the country on a courier mission and had not been allowed back into their homeland. They began traveling through Europe and Asia, trying in country after country to find a side door by which to get back into Russia.
Tatiana was conceived in Italy and born in Paris; when she was 9 years old, her mother died of tuberculosis, and her life in ballet began.
“As I was very weak, the doctor suggested physical exercise to broaden my chest and to come out of the depression over my mother’s death,” Leskova recalled. She had always danced around the house, especially, she said, the Charleston, and she was taken for ballet lessons.
Four years later, Leskova auditioned for the Paris Opera Comique and was taken in as an apprentice. The following year she joined the Ballets Russes, making her official company debut in London’s Covent Garden, shortly before her 16th birthday.
She and the other dancers stayed in boardinghouses, which were cheaper than hotels. It was their first time living without chaperonage, but, she said, “we didn’t have time to be naughty. We had to learn the whole repertory in a month.”
The array of ballets was huge, and some of its most vital work had been the creation of Massine. Leskova remembers him as an artistic director of the old school, “a great personality.”
“Outside, he was very dry,” she said. “But it was all inside. He was very intelligent, calculated. He had a beautiful face.
“None of them were mild,” she said of the era’s choreographers, Massine included. “They were rough. He would just take you by the skin of the flesh and just push you and say, ‘Don’t do that, you’re spoiling my ballet.’ People were like that, and we didn’t talk back.”
The dancers who worked for Massine were also strong personalities, she said, more individualistic than today: “Dancers now are preoccupied by technique. In my day, technique was a way to get to art. There’s so much more competition today. They look at your body, and it’s hard to find personalities. Irina Baronova, Nina Verchinina, Tatiana Riabouchinska, each was different in the way she danced, in the way she understood the movement.”
And Massine, she said, relied on each dancer to remember the steps. They were, after all, members of his company. “He wrote nothing down.”
Last year, Leskova came to New York to set the ballet on the Joffrey. “I like very much working with the Joffrey,” she said. “They have a soul. It gives you a thrill.”
Not everything is as it was at the Ballets Russes. Aside from the changes in dancers--more streamlined, more technique-driven--Leskova didn’t like the original production’s sets or the costumes; she thought the backdrop was too bright.
Campbell Baird has re-created the multihued, multi-symbolic backdrop and John David Ridge the Grecian-inspired costumes. The re-creations have muted the colors; the costumes too have been slightly modernized “for our day,” she said. “You can’t make everything like a museum piece.”
Joffrey principals Beatriz Rodriguez and Daniel Baudendistel have featured roles. Rodriguez, marking her 20th year with the company, worked for several days on her role, Action, with Leskova and her Ballet Russes colleague Laport.
Action, Rodriguez said, “is a bastion of strength.” She noted that it is Action who opens the ballet, the first dancer to cross the stage. “She is a very determined person. It’s interesting that she is a woman and she does the jumping, which is predominantly a male image.”
One of the things that most impressed her about the ballet, she said, was that she learned it from two women. “They sort of took mother roles, teaching and giving part of themselves. My mother isn’t a dancer, and it’s wonderful to share something like that with these women.”
Rodriguez remembers Massine, who died in 1979, from when he worked with the troupe on “Parade,” “Petrushka” and, with Alexandra Danilova, “Beau Danube.”
“When you sort of take it out of context, he could be my great-uncle,” Rodriguez said. “He was very keen. He’d say, ‘More. I want more.’ He was this little guy who had a lot of character, strength and charisma.”
She feels that intensity in the structure of “Les Presages,” she said: “It’s not milky, romantic, soft in the sense that it gets lost. It’s real powerful. If you’re talking about the destiny of love, love isn’t always very easy.”
Nor, said Baudendistel, is it easy to interpret the ballet’s meaning. His role, Hero, embodies a certain ambiguity in the ballet’s fourth and final movement.
“I love the role of the Hero,” he said. Now, shortly before the Joffrey premiere, he was still considering what the role meant.
Is the hero making the world safe for peace, or does he embody an eagerness for war? Baudendistel considered other art of the era, particularly “The Green Table” (also in the Joffrey repertory), in which Baudendistel has danced the role of the Standard Bearer. “He comes out and calls to his boys and is eager for war,” and so, he believes, is Hero.
“That’s what I am, the glamorous hero, calling them to war. I am the propaganda right. I am the instrument of the evil means.
“I wonder if Massine wanted to scare people,” Baudendistel mused. “He certainly wanted to make people wake up and think.”