Setting Fire to the Stage
By Joseph Carman
Alexei Ratmansky, it could be easily argued, is the hottest property among ballet choreographers today. Everyone wants a piece of him. On March 29, American Ballet Theatre (ABT), in conjunction with Segerstrom Center for the Arts, will present a world premiere piece by Ratmansky: his glorious new production of the great Stravinsky classic, Firebird. Stressing the "theater" aspect of ABT, the triple bill will also include legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham's modern classic, Duets; and Christopher Wheeldon's ingenious Thirteen Diversions.
When asked why Firebird and why now, Ratmansky [who dropped "the" from the work's title] has a simple answer. "First of all, the great score," he says. "And ABT has a very strong cast for Firebird right now." The ballerinas Ratmansky has chosen to depict the fiery bird of mystery include the high-leaping Natalia Osipova, formerly of Russia's Bolshoi Ballet; and Isabella Boylston and Misty Copeland, rising stars in ABT's ranks. "They are all very physical, can jump well and have something wild about them," says Ratmansky. "They are wonderful." David Hallberg, who made history as the first American to be asked to join the Bolshoi Ballet, will dance the role of the Prince in fierce pursuit of the Firebird. Firebird is the sixth ballet that Ratmansky, currently ABT's Artist in Residence, has created especially for ABT and the third story ballet, after The Nutcracker and On the Dnieper.
Ratmansky, who thrives on choreographing to Russian composers, has used Stravinsky pieces in the past. But the music for Firebird, which in the ABT production will be played in its entirety, has held a special place in Ratmansky's head and heart. "The score was written in close collaboration with Michel Fokine, the original choreographer," he says. "The story is illustrated precisely—you can hear all the details of the action in the music. I love that."
The danced version of The Firebird that Ratmansky has most admired (George Balanchine, Maurice Béjart, and James Kudelka, among many choreographers, have all done their individual takes) is the original version by Michel Fokine, premiered by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes in Paris in 1910. Ratmansky follows the traditional plotline with the familiar archetypal characters. As the story goes, Prince Ivan enters the magical kingdom of Kaschei, the immortal sorcerer, and chases and catches the Firebird. In exchange for her freedom, the Firebird agrees to help the Prince. After he sees one of Kaschei's princesses and falls in love, he enters into battle with Kaschei's monsters to gain her hand in marriage. The Firebird intervenes and the Prince triumphs, as heard in Stravinsky's magnificent final tableau.
Ratmansky choreographed a previous version of Firebird for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 2002. Ratmansky says the ABT choreography will be entirely new, although his concept that the princesses are the monsters under the spell of Kaschei remains the same. The one-act ballet will feature scenery by Simon Pastukh and costumes by Galina Solovyeva. Both have worked with Ratmansky on previous critically acclaimed ballets.
The late Merce Cunningham purposely eschewed narrative in his works, but the effect of his choreography casts its own particular spell. Cunningham's intelligent and hypnotic piece Duets has translated brilliantly onto the classically trained dancers of ABT. A study in geometry, shapes, space, rhythm and time, Duets is set to John Cage's cunning score "Improvisations III," comprising electronic manipulations of percussive music by Peadar and Mel Mercier. Originally premiered in 1980 on Cunningham's own troupe, the piece for six couples entered ABT's repertoire in 1982, but was only recently revived by the company. Now that the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has disbanded (Cunningham gave specific directions for the company to continue only briefly after his death, in 2009), this is an opportunity to see a classic piece by one of the great choreographic masters of the 20th century.
Christopher Wheeldon, who has forged a formidable career as one of the world's top ballet choreographers (and he's not yet even 40), has taken on Benjamin Britten's "Diversions for Piano (left hand) and Orchestra, Op. 21" for his latest work for ABT. Thirteen Diversions makes a case for ballet on a grand scale—four principal couples, backed up by 16 corps de ballet members, embody the changing temperament of the score that shifts from adagio to rubato to tarantella.
With Wheeldon at the choreographic helm, you know you're going to get a fascinating display of choreography that changes direction and continually surprises with its mercurial choices. He also works with a great reverence, for and knowledge of, ballet vocabulary. And he's not afraid to choreograph a ballet that looks unmistakably like ballet.
Like Wheeldon, Ratmansky finds great inspiration in dancers and music. For over a hundred years, he says, the Firebird has fascinated audiences because, "it's a beautiful creature, it can't leave you indifferent—it's a combination of the bird and fire." What will transfix California audiences is the color, craft, musical acumen and thrilling dance. And you might just want to be there to witness history being made.
Joseph Carman is a senior contributing editor to Dance magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.
Dance Series provided by:
Audrey Steele Burnand Endowed Fund for International Dance
The Segerstrom Foundation Endowment for Great Performances
Lead Support for this engagement is provided by:
The Segerstrom Foundation
With Special Underwriting for
American Ballet Theatre's
Mary and Richard Cramer
Mr. and Mrs. George Schreyer
Allan and Stefanie Simon
Sutton and Christian Stracke
Classical KUSC Radio
© 2012 Segerstrom Center for the Arts
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