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Nashville Ballet - 'Firebird' and 'The Rite of Spring'

by Zan Buckner

February 17, 2006 -- Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville, Tennessee

The Nashville Ballet described its latest offering, a double bill of “Firebird” and “The Rite of Spring,” as sensual, seductive, steamy, and savage.  From the gift of spicy red candy that season subscribers found at their seats, to the warning that the presentation was not recommended for younger audiences, the point was clear: this would be one sizzling hot ballet performance.

It was a bold declaration but one that the program more than lived up to.

The first thing on the menu was a contemporized version of “Firebird,” a short ballet featuring the impassioned music of Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and choreography by Nashville Ballet Artistic Director Paul Vasterling.

Originally, “Firebird” involved a prince who meets an otherworldly creature, the Firebird, who has come to Earth to teach about love. After metaphorically losing his way in a world of evil, the prince is shown the way to happiness by the Firebird.

In this updated version by Vasterling, the hero is no longer a prince but an everyman. After encountering different forms of love and being tempted by evil, he is redeemed and transported with the Firebird into a nirvana-like place of joy. In a piece that comments on the complicated nature of relationships, it was refreshing to see same sex couples as well as opposite sex pairs included.

Eddie Mikrut made the part of the hero/everyman his own. He was believable and easy to identify with. His long-legged form exuded grace and strength, and his dancing was masterful with beautifully executed turns and jumps. Christine Rennie as the Firebird was a sure, smooth dancer, pleasant and easy to watch.

Set against a bare stage, the lighting effects by Scott Leathers were outstanding. The ballet began in misty dimness, rendering the Firebird’s emergence from a bright yellow light all the more dramatic. Interestingly, this is an area in which the costuming and lighting interacted to advantage. Having the Firebird emerge from the fire instead of being costumed to look like fire freed costume designer Aubrey Hyde from outfitting the Firebird character in reds, oranges, and yellow as might be expected.

The new costumes designed for this production were attention-getters ranging from innocent to intense. During the segment in which the protagonist struggled with temptation and evil, the dancers wore skimpy black outfits that would not have been out of place in a kinky bondage sex dungeon. A later set of costumes blended so seamlessly with the dancers’ skin that viewers were left wondering if they were costumes or body paint.

The second ballet of the program, “Rite of Spring,” brought to the stage paganism and its rituals from birth to death, with plenty of sex and violence in between. It told the story of a young warrior’s birth and coming of age and of a young woman who is sacrificed to make peace with the God of Spring.

Stravinsky’s complex and unsettling music caused distress during its 1913 premiere but to modern ears it is exciting, aggressive, provocative, and thrilling.  More than anything else, though, it is Salvatore Aiello’s choreography that made this version something special. The dancers’ bodies often contorted in irregular positions with limbs at odd angles, yet the result was powerful and strangely beautiful. The dance was filled with angles and anger, pounding feet and primal energy.

In Act One, Sadie Harris held the audience’s eye as the Earth Figure giving birth to the Young Warrior, played by Christopher Mohnani. The choreography for the ensemble as clans people and maidens was expressive and well executed. Watching their wild yet coordinated motions felt almost like a guilty pleasure, like something that should be forbidden.  Mohnani as the Young Warrior was a force of nature, exuding power, sexuality, and danger. His dancing was dramatic, skillful, and extremely attention-grabbing.

Brendon LaPier as the Chieftain was also notable. His high-energy battle for supremacy with the Young Warrior ended in an orgy of cannibalism that was truly chilling. Their battle later had its echo in the wild sexual encounter between the warrior and the Chosen One.

As the Chosen One, Jennifer McNamara more than held her own.. She moved in ways that sometimes appeared physically impossible. Her dancing was both graceful and dramatic, showing her skill as a gifted actress as well as a dancer. Her stage presence was undeniable.  If McNamara and Mohnani had been any more magnetic, the Earth might have tilted off its axis.

The sexual encounter/battle left the large, appreciative audience with pumping adrenalin and an overwhelming sense of tension and unease. The ending in which the Chosen One was sacrificed, draped over a tripod of tall poles, and offered up to angry gods was likewise emotionally wrenching.

For those who came to see a ballet with sex, cannibalism, and human sacrifice and also for those who just wanted to experience dramatic, arresting dancing, this was a performance that more than satisfied.

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