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Pennsylvania Ballet

'Firebird,' 'Concerto 488'

by Lewis Whittington

June 6, 2003 -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA

So many dance legends swirl around the historic debut of "Firebird" in 1910.

It was Igor Stravinsky’s first ballet score, one which ushered in the modern symphonic era. Tamara Karsavina replaced Anna Pavlova, after the prima ballerina exited because she couldn’t handle the music. The designs of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe production by Léon Bakst at the Theatre National de l'Opera in Paris in 1910 under Michael Fokine’s choreography met with triumphant reception from European audiences and critics.

There have been only a few notable "Firebirds" since -- the Royal Ballet’s reconstruction in 1954, Ailey’s, Balanchine’s (starring Maria Tallchief) and Bejart’s come to mind -- but for a ballet with such a dramatic history, it remains out of most company repertories. That could be because, despite its pedigree, "Firebird" presents daunting structural problems.

First off, there is Stravinsky's groundbreaking score, mostly performed by orchestras in its truncated version, "Firebird Suite." In his retelling of the ballet, choreographer James Kudelka uses the full 47-minute orchestral score, which has long atmospheric, passages that are difficult to choreograph. It’s more about the music, than the music supporting narrative dance. Then there is the story itself, with a central character that doesn’t possess human qualities, and so is bereft any emotional development in a folktale that is already sketchy.

From the start, Kudelka answers the problems of story and score by crowding his steps and overloading the stage with business, making it a visual feast. He sets it in a stunning tropical paradise, designed after pre-Columbian art and Pacific Rim environment, with costumes and set designs by Santo Loquasto. Kudelka, Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, made this "Firebird" in 2001 for his company and co-productions with the Houston Ballet and American Ballet Theater. ABT's production was delayed understandably that year, but NBC and Houston enjoyed successful productions.

The story tells of the mythical firebird, whose feathers were burned by the sun and saves an enchanted paradise from the evil sorcerer Kastchei and his minions. There is a patchy secondary love story about Prince Ivan, who is enchanted by the firebird and is later rescued by her and his future bride Princess Vasilisa.

Kudelka’s spectacle is often truly inspired, but also occasionally stupefying, even unintentionally comic. Take, for instance, Alexie Borovik, decked out as the red and blue-faced evil lord Kastchei who casts a ‘dance of death’ curse over his subjects from his orbed throne, bringing the cast stomping around him in a frenzy. The only thing that was missing was the Marx Brothers.

Most effective are Kudelka’s mix of the ancient designs and exoticism reminiscent of the silent screen era. When Eddie Ceislak enters as Prince Ivan, brandishing a bow and lurching forward in pursuit of the Firebird, he looks as though the Art Deco master Erte animated him. It is an example of Kuldelka fusing imagery indelibly with choreography.

Effective too, are the sharp, darting reflexes and flourishes put on the Firebird, danced on opening night with valiant control by Anantxa Ochoa. She scuttles forward in pinpoint avian steps one second and then flies into thrilling fully extended jetes the next. Later, the Prince grabs at the Firebird's aerodynamic tutu that flexes behind her, and then captures her in his arms, entwined in a close-bodied duet that keeps moving.

Kudelka catches up with the designs when the evil king, Kastchei, tries to gain control of the enchanted kingdom. Borovik, in his regal Mayan garb, and dancing against type, shifts his usual perfect, rounded classicism, squatting his torso, as he splays his long red fingernails to curse the Prince. His body squares off with a curled toed foot drawn up, and arm pitched like a warrior, one of Kudelka's many stunning stage pictures.

Other segments, by contrast, are not as effective. There is a chorus line of maidens in eggshell hoop-skirted cut-aways and billowing pantaloons throwing magical fruit around. I thought I was in hell with Busby Berkeley. This long segment eventually gives way to a Vaslav Nijinsky tableaux from ' Faun,' with Prince Ivan looking as though he were in a forced game of "Ring-around-the-rosie" with the hapless maidens. No blaming the music this time. Other segments have pacing problems and unison is dropped at several points. With so many people onstage executing furious steps, it looked like a rumble in the costume department.

There were interesting contrasts among the leads. As the Firebird, Ochoa approached the role more directly connected to Kudelka’s instructions, staying strictly in character. In the second cast Riolama Lorenzo was more interpretive, expressing a more human quality to the Firebird. Instructed by Kudelka to be angular, Lorenzo made those frames into a starting point for her port de bras and immediately rounded out her arms and fluttered them over her upper body in variation. Lorenzo’s performance was pitch-perfect technically and thrilling every moment. A veteran of New York City Ballet who took a two-year hiatus studying in Florida, Lorenzo became a corps member last year with PAB and has been featured in every production this season. Lorenzo’s technical carriage had transcendent moments.

James Idhe as the 2nd Prince Ivan gives a muscular performance and is partnered beautifully with Lorenzo. The ballet orchestra, led by Beatrice Jona Affron, was studied on the opening night, but four performances later they sounded both aggressive and dimensional in the grand setting of the Academy of Music. She stressed Stravinsky’s horns, that bleated and fired in the fanfares, dramatically supporting the stage action.

The music was the thing in Lila York’s "Concerto 488," set to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A Major. York, a veteran Paul Taylor dancer, kept things airy and flowing, much like the music. She launched a series of trios and solos for the piano and on the wings of Mozart’s orchestral allegros, bounding entrances that filled the stage for the troupe of 10. Monochromatic tees and chinos gave the men jaunty deportment and the silky pale-hued spaghetti strap dresses caressed the women.

After a few bows to Taylor, York contrived intricate phrases with small jumps and unexpected entrances into turns (Philadelphia Inquirer dance critic Merilyn Jackson characterized them as surf-board moves). Christine Cox and Francis Veyette danced an intimate duet featuring a series of arch-back lifts that smoldered with intimacy, past eroticism. York’s lead solo exploited David Krensing’s physicality and, in the second cast Borovik’s relaxed classicism. And she gave the other dancers spotlight moments along the way, with Veyette, Cox, Heidi Cruz, Tara Keating, Matthew Neenan, Philip Colucci and Philip Deleb joyously expressing York’s playfulness.

Concert pianist Donna Battista Kligerman played the concerto with memorable flair, accenting the purity, musicality and logic of the work.

At season’s end last year, a dozen PAB dancers were on the injured list after a demanding season, this year everyone is healthy and about to go into their 40th year season. Under Roy Kaiser’s continued invigorating artistic direction, this company continues to grow and he is presenting terrific talent, from the corps on up.

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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