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Balanchine speaks through interpreters

November 16, 2008 | 11:31 am

Yvonne Mounsey coaches Melissa Barak In 1928, famed Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev assigned 25-year-old George Balanchine the task of creating choreography for a ballet to be called "Prodigal Son": a prototypical multimedia theater work based on the parable from the Gospel of Luke. Balanchine would collaborate on the piece with scenarist Boris Kochno, set designer (and artist) Georges Rouault and composer Serge Prokofiev. The result — which premiered in Paris five years before Balanchine relocated to the U.S., where he eventually co-founded New York City Ballet — is still being danced around the world.

But Balanchine was famously indifferent toward preserving his ballets. He was unsentimental and non-nostalgic; instead, he was a resolute modernist focused on advancing his art. Even during his 60-year, 400-ballet career, varying interpretations and versions of his works began to crop up — especially when he himself willfully re-choreographed them for new casts. And after his death in 1983, maintaining Balanchine’s original intent became an Official Problem.

Cut to 1995. The New York-based George Balanchine Foundation launched the Interpreter's Archive, a program whose mission is the videotaping of rehearsals with the now-aging dancers on whom Balanchine created roles or with whom he worked directly in the studio.

One such videotaping recently took place in Santa Monica. Former New York City Ballet dancer Yvonne Mounsey, now 89 and long an L.A. fixture as director of the Westside Ballet, coached Melissa Barak of Los Angeles Ballet in the challenging and vividly sexual role of the Siren in "Prodigal Son." Mounsey, who debuted in the role in 1950, passed along tips she had received then from the original Siren, Felia Doubrovska. There's more about that session — and the Interpreter's Archive — in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

-- Debra Levine

Photo: Yvonne Mounsey coaches Melissa Barak. Credit: Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times