New York City Ballet principal Joaquin De Luz on the elusive nature of Balanchine’s Prodigal Son.
As told to Amy Brandt
Prodigal Son is the most important role of my career, and the most challenging. It’s not only powerful physically; it takes you on a journey, and hopefully you take the audience with you. It’s also pretty elusive; I still haven’t found a formula that I’m content with.
The beginning feels most natural to me. I was a bad kid growing up, very rebellious. The son feels oppressed, like no one understands him. He thinks he knows best. That first entrance is full of power, big jumps and energy. That’s the easy part. But the value of this role is in the character and the story.
The scene with the Siren is very spooky. She’s this Amazon woman, taking his virginity and rocking his world. It’s very physical, but you have to make it look smooth and intricate—it has to give the audience the sense of a dream. We often think of partnering as being done just one way, but this is a completely different ballgame. She’s all wrapped around you like a snake, and you have to promenade and lift her. You use parts of your body that you’ve never partnered with before, like your neck and your upper back. Then there’s a tricky moment when he starts realizing the danger he’s in and starts missing home. The trick is to not overact, just react. Everything is already there, in the choreography. It’s Balanchine’s genius.
The most challenging part comes when I’m alone onstage afterwards. You have to show how this character is broken and has nothing left, but you don’t really have any steps. And the less steps you have, the more naked you are to the audience. You have to draw from past experiences, of feeling let down, depressive moments—I remember my own homesickness when I first moved here to dance. You can’t be over the top, or it looks fake. The simpler, the better—you don’t have to add anything extra other than what you’re feeling inside.
At the end, you’re feeling so guilty and unworthy—and then you see your dad extend his arms to you. The music there is so powerful, I can’t even explain it. I’ve had many shows where tears were running down my face as I crawled toward him. I don’t plan it, it just happens.
Even then, I never have a show of Prodigal where I feel completely satisfied with what I’ve done. I’m still searching for something that I don’t think I’ll ever find.
“I once asked Baryshnikov to help me with Prodigal, but he said no. I didn’t understand at the time, but he said it was because it’s a very personal role. You have to let it get under your skin and make the choices yourself.”