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April 2, 2012

ABT takes 'Firebird' on the road


Once in a great while, the Los Angeles area plays host to a ballet world-premiere performance. Dance doesn't have the luxury of the out-of-town tryout, unlike musical theater. When a New York dance company ventures forth for a debut, it's marketed to ticket buyers as an exciting honor -- and it can be. But you have to understand that you're also being invited to serve as a guinea pig. Those first onstage performances can be rough. They allow the artistic director, choreographer and scenic designers a precious opportunity to sit out in the theater and evaluate how the fledgling production looks onstage. Then, they might tweak the ballet and take the (perhaps) improved version back to New York or elsewhere.

American Ballet Theatre was ensconced all last week at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts (in Orange County), unveiling a new production of "Firebird" (Thursday through Sunday) by company artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky. It was touted as a present for the center, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

It was a good weekend to be a test rodent.

You never want to pass up an opportunity to hear the full-length Stravinsky score (even if the musicians are in the pit) and you don't want to pass up a Ratmansky ballet. He was working with trusted collaborators: scenic designer Simon Pastukh and costume designer Galina Solovyeva. Pastukh has come up with the most extraordinary set pieces I've seen for a ballet -- a foreboding forest of metallic-looking giant trees. Smoke puffed lazily from the tree tops and the red leaves glowed. The landscape continued on the animated backdrop, courtesy of  Wendall Harrington's projections. Upon the defeat of the evil sorcerer Kaschei, this Roald Dahl landscape melted away and the trees opened up into gilded gates. In the closing tableaux, with Stravinsky's final chords lifting both your heart and the hairs on the back of your neck, the Firebird was carried aloft, spinning in heavenly rays of golden light amidst couples in white.

I saw three different casts of the four principal leads, and all were finding their footing through Ratmansky's complex patterns. Rhythmic certainty was the key. Ratmansky's phrases must be danced like a full-bodied monologue or conversation (whichever is appropriate) with steps properly accented. Even in story-less pieces, Ratmansky crafts phrases that convey who these people are; it's never merely decoration, although it can look that way if it's not fully articulated. Herman Cornejo (pictured above with Misty Copeland; Gene Schiavone photo) was the strongest Ivan; already, he was dancing his part from the inside out. Misty Copeland, a rising soloist, made a marvelous debut as the Firebird. Like Cornejo, Copeland plays with the rhythm, showing the audience to "Look here, and watch this now." It was a sweet triumph for Copeland, who was raised in Los Angeles and had a cheering section to watch her. 

I found different shades to appreciate in each of the three Maidens -- Kristi Boone, Simone Messmer and Maria Riccetto. David Hallberg, who is the much-talked-about principal dancer dividing his time between ABT and the Bolshoi, nearly stole the stage as the mesmerizing Kaschei. Ratmansky has made Kaschei the ballet's most fun character. He drums his fingers with evil intention, stalks with black cape flowing, and then smooches the leading Maiden - long and hard. The bad guy never kisses the girl! And when it's over, he knows someone has gotten there before him. He can taste it. He wipes his lips with the back of his hand and spits.
ABT performs "Firebird" at the Metropolitan Opera House beginning on June 11. I'm betting there will be a few changes between now and then. At the moment, there is a corps de ballet of 16 male and female Firebirds, in addition to the principal female Firebird. The stage was too crowded, and the viewer simply couldn't see them all. Plus, the dancers couldn't perform full out - they had to be careful not to whack one another.
Then there's the wig question. The Maidens were wearing two different wigs on opening night: a frizzy green-blond one for when they were in Kaschei's domain, and a long style with smooth curls when freed from his curse. It was too difficult or uncomfortable, apparently, to wear one atop the other. At the Saturday matinee, both were gone. American dancers almost never wear headpieces and it's a shame because they complete the look. At Sunday's final performance, the long-haired wigs were back, tied up with strips of greenish gauze for the enchanted forest scene. To complete the transformation, the women pulled out the gauze and the curls cascaded down. In theory. Not a bad fix, except that Ricetto had trouble releasing the hair tie. I vote for wearing both wigs because they're just so much fun. Just like this ballet. 
April 2, 2012 8:35 PM | | Comments (0)

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