Simon Morrison lectures on lost Prokofiev ballet

Simon Morrison, a professor of music at Princeton, gave the Peter Grant Swing memorial lecture last Thursday. His talk was entitled “Prokofiev’s Soviet Ballet,” and concerned the forgotten ballet “Le Pas d’Acier (“The Steel Step”).” The ballet will be performed next weekend in Princeton, the first time it will be produced as Prokofiev intended it to be.

Prokofiev, like many Russian composers, travelled West before the revolution and stayed there after it, centering on Paris. Unlike most others, in the 1920s he began to plan a return to Russia, which Morrison called “extremely bad timing,” and he was later officially censored. There is question whether Prokofiev was ignorant or just oblivious of the truth of Soviet Russia, but Morrison’s talk was concerned with the time immediately prior to Prokofiev’s return, when he wrote “The Steel Step.”

The ballet was commissioned for the Ballet Russes, and sought to be an abstract meditation on the “union of man and machine.” Prokofiev “thought it would win him favor, but it was a fiasco.” The original conception involved three spheres: a market scene, a satire of the New Economic Plan and an exhibition. The final product had an entirely different plot, starting at a train station and featuring many stock characters of Russian ballet, and ended at a factory, and a strange finale involving aerobics. Though Prokofiev intended it to be neutral, Morrison said that the final product was the “subordination of man to machine,” and it became a “parody of what it was supposed to represent.”

Few records of the original production survive, and nothing relating to the choreography, which didn’t reflect Prokofiev’s original view in any case. The Princeton production has recreated the designs of the original set (which may have never been fully realized) and done their best on everything else. Morrison described the elaborate factory set in detail, which involves “lots of spinning things.” The choreography worked on the principal of “unified temporality,” meaning that the music lays down a fixed idea and repeats it, and the choreography develops it. This development is mostly in the factory portion of the ballet, where the movement is flexible, as opposed to the first train station, where the pre-revolution world is in stasis.

The ballet did not have the effect that Prokofiev hoped for. The ballet was a “bourgeois thought on proletarian subject matter,” and the produced version made Prokofiev “a Red in the West and a White in the East… he was tired of competing with Stravinsky and the USSR lured him back” with many incentives. Prokofiev’s wife thought that her husband could become the preeminent Soviet composer, which didn’t happen. The composer wrote a fair amount of state-commissioned music about happy workers, most of which is forgotten, and later faced censure for his other work. He never returned to the West.


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