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DANCE : A Second Premiere for the Lost 'Cotillon' : The Joffrey Ballet reconstructs George Balanchine's 1932 Ballets Russes ballroom masterwork

April 30, 1989|SUSAN REITER

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.

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