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American Ballet Theatre

'Firebird'

by Jerry Hochman

June 12 and 22, 2012 -- Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, NY

I expect a lot from Alexei Ratmansky. While I have not always gushed over his ballets, I have found all that I’ve seen to be intelligently crafted works of art that are also interesting to watch unfold, and that frequently tend to warm the heart and tickle the funny bone at the same time.. As I’ve previously described, his ballets convey a sense of humanity, whether the ballets is serious (“Russian Seasons,” “On the Dnieper”), or comic (“The Little Humpbacked Horse”), or both (“The Nutcracker”). But on my initial viewing of Mr. Ratmansky’s new version of “Firebird,” I was disappointed. I saw it as a hodgepodge of frenetic movement and misplaced comedy that made the piece appear almost incoherent. My second viewing did not change my opinion – but I see it now as an effort that might have worked, even with what I consider to have been a misguided concept, had it been more restrained.

The myth of a magical, god-like bird with bright gold, purple, scarlet or peacock-like plumage that is aligned with a sun god or that possesses heat, light, or fire of its own, is common to many cultures. In Greece, the bird was called a Phoenix. Related ‘birds’ can be found from India and Egypt to Persia, China and Japan, from Eastern Europe to Central Europe.

This god-like bird is common to Slavic cultures as well. In Russian folklore, the Firebird is known as Zhar-Ptitska, and the Firebird myth has spawned several related fairy tales, the most famous of which are “Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf” and “The Little Humpbacked Horse.” In ridiculously broad strokes, the Firebird brings hope to the oppressed masses and humiliation to hapless old tsars, feeds on precious golden apples (which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view), and every once in awhile sheds a feather – which has magical powers that lead the feather’s finder on a quest for happiness, immortality, the tsar’s daughter, or some combination of all of them, and that can be used to summon the Firebird when help is needed.

Serge Diaghilev and Michel Fokine mined Russian fairy-tale sources, merging the Firebird myth with the separate myth of an evil sorcerer-tsar Kaschei, to create the ballet “The Firebird” for the Ballets Russes. It premiered on June 25, 1910 in Paris, with Tamara Karsavina as the Firebird, and a score by a young composer named Igor Stravinsky. Among other incarnations of the ballet, George Balanchine created a version for the New York City Ballet, which featured sets by Marc Chagall, which is presently in NYCB’s repertoire.

Unlike “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” which Mr. Ratmansky recreated for the Mariinsky and which I saw, and favorably reviewed, last summer, “Firebird” does not include in its story a foolish old tsar to ridicule, or fantastical shenanigans to laugh at. At least as presented by Diaghilev, Fokine, and Stravinsky, “Firebird” is a serious fairy tale. Prince Ivan captures a Firebird, who begs for her freedom, and in return for releasing her, the Firebird provides Ivan with a feather that he can use to summon her when needed. Ivan and the Firebird subsequently rescue a Princess (with whom Ivan happens to fall in love) and her entourage from evil Kaschei. A simple story of good triumphing over evil.

For a story that’s related to, but very different from “The Little Humpbacked Horse,” Mr. Ratmansky’s “Firebird” looks and ‘feels’ much like his LHH. Mr. Ratmansky infuses his “Firebird” with comedy. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – perhaps he learned the story differently, or just wanted to create an anti-Balanchine version that doesn’t take itself so seriously. But the comic elements he has introduced are not 'warm-hearted’ comic; just silly. Instead of a magical mythological tale, Mr. Ratmansky has presented a piece that is as much an absurdist satire as a fairy tale; more worthy of the brothers Marx than the brothers Grimm.

I must confess that, aside from the Chagall sets, I never particularly liked Balanchine’s “Firebird.” Even when spectacularly performed (by Maria Kowroski the last time I saw it), it seemed too reverential; too stiff. Mr. Ratmansky’s version is the opposite. To this viewer, it is too irreverent, too much of a choreographic conglomeration of ballet and running and jumping, and too lightweight. It’s as if Mr. Ratmansky took the story and decided that it’s only a fairy tale, and everyone should just lighten up and chill. It’s appropriate, perhaps, that this version had its world premiere earlier this year in Costa Mesa, California.

But if converting the ballet from a fairy tale with dark overtones to a comic reinterpretation of a fairy tale were all there was to criticize about this new version, then it would be an interpretive difference that an audience, or at least this member of an audience, could get used to. But the artistic choices made were not helpful, and changed the thrust of the piece from a fairy tale that schoolchildren can love into a piece that, perhaps, only schoolchildren can love.

Mr. Ratmansky’s “Firebird” opens with Ivan, dressed in a white pierrot-like outfit, in some sort of room, or cell, behind a wall, either jumping to get out or falling to the floor, finally exiting through a cut-out door into the fantasy world of the Firebird. [Why Ivan is so frustrated at his inability to escape, when there’s an open door there all the time, is not explained.] The scene looks like an homage to "Petruchka" – a collaboration by the same artistic team that created “Firebird” a year earlier.

The fantasy realm into which Ivan crosses is marked by strange-shaped ‘trees’ with tips ablaze and smoke intermittently emerging from the treetops. Shortly after Ivan enters the space, he’s nearly run over by a gaggle of firebirds, which, in this version, are as rare and exotic as pigeons. There are female firebirds, and male firebirds, dressed in red from head to toe, and running to and fro across the stage like…grounded birds. Then another firebird joins the flock – she appears to be the queen firebird because she moves with more authority and dynamism (looking like a red roadrunner), and has more of a personality than the other birds. While one would think that it would have been less difficult for Ivan to have captured one of the other firebirds [it shouldn’t have made a difference; isn’t every firebird supposed to be magical?], he focuses on this more independent bird. They struggle; she writhes; she begs him to let her go. The struggle between the Firebird and Ivan, to this viewer, is the most interesting part of the piece; a very well-choreographed little battle.

The Firebird finally sheds a feather; Ivan picks it up, and the Firebird escapes (and we see her as a red beam of light flying away at warp speed – similar to Carabosse’s skyrocket exit from the festivities to celebrate the birth of Aurora in ABT’s current version of “The Sleeping Beauty”). And then the ballet falls apart.

Immediately after the Firebird zooms away, Ivan encounters a bevy of maidens, dressed in ocean-blue from head to toe (including hair). The maidens look and act a little strange – as if they’d been fed hallucinogenic mushrooms. Ivan is attracted to one of the maidens, but soon after Ivan and the Maiden begin to get to know each other, the shadow of Kaschei, looms over the scraggly-looking forest of fake trees. The visualization of Kaschei approaching is both literal and satirical –a projected image of an oversized obviously evil man, in shadow, magnified in the distance as he ominously approaches, diminishing in size as he moves closer to the light source, and to the maidens. It’s a fabulous set of images (a little like Dorothy’s first view of the shadow of the Wizard in “The Wizard of Oz”), and exemplifies what might have been had similarly dramatic, albeit humorous, artistic choices been made in the rest of the piece.

The character Kaschei (as opposed to his projected image) is a comic-book villain. If he had a mustache, it would be pencil thin spreading halfway across his cheeks, and he’d be twirling one of the edges with his fingers. Cartoonish though he is, in this viewer’s opinion he’s more central to the piece than Ivan, who doesn’t seem to have a reason for being other than to move the plot along.

Kaschei manipulates the maidens, who continue to look more stoned than possessed. But eventually Ivan summons the Firebird, and the two vanquish Kaschei when, after an epic struggle, the Firebird shows Ivan that all he needs to do is crack this oversized egg that was embedded all the time in one of the pseudo trees. Ivan cracks the egg, in which Kaschei’s soul was protected. Having lost his soul and his power, Kaschei dies, and the maidens thereupon shed their blue threads and hair and morph into pure white...maidens (including white hair), and pure white male escorts emerge from confinement within the trees/columns of the set). [We have no clue where these men (most of whom look like they’d been male firebirds in a prior life, or prior scene) come from, why they were confined, or why they’re all dressed like Ivan. Perhaps Ivan is an ‘everyman’, and the multiple Ivans are intended to be ‘everymen.’]

Unlike LHH, the artistic choices that Mr. Ratmansky made here do not enrich the humor; they demean the effort and convert the myth from a simple fairy tale of good triumphing over evil into something to laugh at. And although the final scene, when the maidens are released from their hallucinogenic captivity, looking like a sea of bleached hyperactive swans, isn’t bad, it’s too little, too late. It’s not consistent with the myth, in this viewer’s opinion, to have the possessed maidens laughed at. It’s not funny to have the lead maiden assaulted by Kaschei and the event handled just like another comic episode. And, when the maidens are set free, which should be the piece’s cathartic release, it defeats the point to see these ‘free’ maidens struggle to get rid of their blue outfits and hair looking like reptiles struggling to shed their skin. And the choreography was too frantic -- lots of pointless, repetitive jumping, with vaudeville-like dances for the maidens (the 'vaudeville' analogy I owe to a friend) and the Firebird flying around the stage in a frenzy (ok, like a bird). Overall, it just looked silly.

The casting, at least based on the two performances of “Firebird” that I saw, was unusually well-balanced for ABT. At Tuesday’s performance, Misty Copeland flew around the stage like Sonic the Firebird (Sonic, roadrunner…you get the idea), but it was all force and little finesse. Ms. Copeland has a powerful stage presence, which she used to advantage as the Firebird. But to this viewer, raw power was all there was, and Ms. Copeland has developed more qualities as a dancer than only power (as I’ve written previously, I think she’d make a sensational ‘Carmen’ if ABT decides to revive it). Her Ivan, Herman Cornejo, was an equally powerful stage presence, as he always is, though most of the time he seemed powerfully perplexed. At Friday’s performance, the partnering of Isabella Boylston and Alexandre Hammoudi was less strong, but had more finesse than did Ms. Copeland and Mr. Cornejo. Ms. Boylston infused the role with characterization that I didn’t previously see (though I concede that by second viewing I was open to seeing nuances that I couldn’t appreciate on first viewing), including wonderful scared-bird eyes. Mr. Hammoudi was a less powerful Ivan than Mr. Cornejo, but balanced Ms. Boylston’s finesse with his own more refined and serene stage persona (his Paris, in “Romeo and Juliet” is always a nice guy rather than a creep). The lead ‘Maiden’ was Maria Riccetto on Tuesday and Kristi Boone on Friday. Both handled the foolishness well, but compared to Ms. Boone, Ms. Riccetto was more over-the-top loony (until released from Kaschei’s spell, when she became more over-the-top giggly/happy).

But the tongue-in-cheek sinister Kaschei, in this viewer’s opinion, is the only character in the piece with real character, cardboard as it may be. Roman Zhurbin’s portrayal was satisfactory, but not nearly as hilariously villainous as Cory Stearns’s Kaschei was on Friday. Mr. Stearns was having a blast, and his attitude was infectious.

On Friday, “Firebird” was preceded by Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream.” While Julie Kent and Daniil Simkin were fine as, respectively, Titania and Puck, Marcelo Gomes's Oberon had the right mix of majesty and insouciance – a quality that Mr. Gomes seems to wear like a second skin in most everything he does.

Tuesday’s “Firebird” was last on a program that was a gala in honor of Kevin McKenzie’s twentieth anniversary as Artistic Director of ABT. The balance of that program, and comments on Mr. McKenzie’s tenure at ABT, will be reserved for a later discussion.

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