Saturday, July 18, 2009

Music for athletes...and everyone else

Sergei Prokofiev, the composer of Music for Athletes, which was premiered for the first time ever last night in Richardson auditorium, composed his greatest works when his life was most precarious. 1939 in Russia, at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror, was certainly not the friendliest place to be for an artist, and indeed the musical director who commissioned the piece, Vsevolod Meyerhold, was arrested, shot and killed before it could ever be performed. But it was at this time that Prokofiev produced works that still delight audiences around the world, most notably his famous crowd-pleaser, Peter and the Wolf.

This piece was also performed last night, as part of the sixth annual Goldandsky Institute’s Summer Symposium and International Piano Festival. But the main attraction of the evening was Music for Athletes, a work that has lived in archives ever since Meyerhold’s death, and was only recently revived by Princeton Music Prof. Simon Morrison.

Though the piece was meant to accompany 30,000 athletes in an “All Union” spectacle of acrobatics and gymnastics, last night’s production of the piece was, unsurprisingly, much more modest, featuring only 4 dancers (members of the class of 2009 and 2010) and an excellent Ilya Itin on the piano.

Originally intended to celebrate the glory of the Stalinist state, Jennie Scholick, the choreographer of the piece, somewhat boldly changed it to a salute to Shirley Tilghman. The dancers all wore black shirts with orange stars, and at various points waved Princeton University banners. The producer of the performance, Adrienne Sirken, told me after the show that the choice to include Princeton in this way was a “tongue-in-cheek move because Shirley Tilghman is obviously not Stalin”. No arguing with that, but the decision still did seem like a commentary on the role of the institution; while it can do many great things, it also inevitably must advertise its greatness to the world. This gives even the most august institution a certain artificial and commercial flavor, which is indiscriminately unappealing.

However, the dancers were so completely at ease on the stage, that this became only a distant, though distinct, part of the show. Unlike the classical beauty of Greek statues of Olympic athletes, the piece is a celebration of youth with all its flaws. We are not meant to rejoice in the perfection of the youthful body, but rather in its liveliness, and its ability to enrapture us precisely because it does not try to.

There is something irresistible about this complete lack of self-consciousness. And the performers in Music for Athletes skillfully managed to capture that state, even if there was always a sense that it was not quite genuine.


Copernicus said...

Could anybody tell me if this peice will be releases on CD. The reason I am interested is that I Directed and produced a film about Meyerhold and his techniques of movement for actors, called "biomechanics". For more information about this film see