It’s bittersweet that ABT has now finished its all too brief run of The Dream, though repeated viewings with different casts were well worth it. Obviously this trip to New York has been filled with firsts, so seeing Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg live was of course a new experience. Coincidentally, when I took class this morning, Gillian did barre to warm up and left, so it was actually a neat experience to see her at work as a person, and then transform into a fairy queen. And not just any fairy queen—Gillian’s Titania has a wild side that deserves a new title I’d like to call “Divatania.” She has an energy and an aura in that role that made me love her the most of all three ballerinas I saw dance it. On that note, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by Xiomara Reyes in the evening performance, who is softer in temperament, but had a little firepower too—when she shot an indignant glare towards Oberon after he tried to purloin her changeling, I only wished that Cory Stearns had given a more emphatic reaction. Stearns certainly has a majestic carriage, fine technique, and I think he can act too but I also felt that he may be unsure of where he wants to go with his interpretation of Oberon, perhaps beyond what he’s told to do with it. Watching Gomes last night was a lesson in attack and full out dancing at eighty-five million miles an hour, while David showed more contrast and really played with pushing and pulling the music in today’s matinee.
Some of the same dancers reprised roles from last night, though I was very pleased that I got to see Maria Riccetto, Stella Abrera, Sascha Radetsky, and Jared Matthews perform as the Lovers because they’ve clearly done it before and have polished the comedic timing to perfection. Also right on the funny money were both Craig Salstein and of course Herman Cornejo as Puck, the former showing a more raw interpretation with dynamism and speed, the latter the epitome of carefree and clever. Though Puck has sort of become the token substantial consolation role for the short dancer ever since Wayne Sleep originated it, to be honest I wouldn’t mind seeing Cornejo as Oberon. There’s something to be said for developing a conscious ability to present oneself in a way that is contrary to what people tend to think, and many times those who can tap into that are more successful. Tall dancers like Gomes, Hallberg, and Stearns may not even be aware of how their stature affects people’s perceptions of their dancing. I could go on, but I really do need to explain myself in regards to Alexei Ratmansky’s Firebird.
I tried to like it, in fact, I tried to like it three times. Unfortunately it never happened and I couldn’t bring myself to back the concept Ratmansky and the designers of the production had in mind. First off, the sets invoked images of deep sea tubeworms that proliferate around hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor (watch ‘Blue Planet’ on the Discovery Channel if you just failed to follow my geekery), and second the costumes made me think this Firebird was like some kind of collaborative production between the Muppets and Cirque du Soleil to perform Jewels—under the sea, teeming with ruby sea urchins, emerald jellyfish, and diamond…Elvises. I always say that those who try to be edgy or avant-garde inevitably fail because those are things you can’t try to be. Cirque du Soleil for example is known for similar costumes to the firebirds, but with much more innovative choreography and amazing acrobatics so it’s a concept that works, and the same look didn’t seem to highlight Ratmansky’s use of classical steps. Even the more modern stylized movements lacked purpose and the use of some repeated motifs didn’t really contribute to the story.
Oh the story…it hardly made any sense, and leaves you with so many unanswered questions I can’t even begin to ask them all. The plot elements that are somewhat logical are either drawn out to fill the music, or are told in probably the last five minutes of the ballet. Essentially, Ivan wakes up alone in a room (we’re never told how or why), enters the tubeworm forest where he find firebirds, captures one who gives him a feather to summon her in a time of need. He then happens upon a group of maidens in green, recognizes one as his long lost love and tries to get her to remember. Enter the maniacal sorcerer Kaschei, controller of the maidens, and the conflict presents itself. Ivan summons the Firebird, there’s dancing, and then she reveals an egg that Ivan smashes to defeat Kaschei. The maidens reveal themselves in white gowns and blonde wigs, their long lost loves are freed from within the tubeworm trees and the starry people are jubilant. I actually found the ending quite beautiful, but most of the significant action literally takes place in the last few minutes when the meat of the story is revealed, but that’s after almost an hour of choreography that is stretched very thin. I’m rather shocked that this is in fact Ratmansky because it seems so unlike him and when I passed him in the theatre I almost wanted to ask: “what happened?”
The initial pas de deux where Ivan captures the Firebird didn’t convince me that she couldn’t get away from him, and even duets between Ivan and his lost Maiden didn’t illuminate any sort of romantic possibilities. Later there’s a quartet between Ivan, Firebird, Maiden, and Kaschei that moves through molasses and like much of the other sections in the ballet is too long and nonsensical. Still, the production isn’t entirely without merit but I fear that Ratmansky’s ballet relies entirely on casting. Isabella Boylston and Natalia Osipova were the two Firebirds I saw in three casts, and Boylston was lovely (the crowd was going wild for her), though Osipova had a certain kookiness that I found convincing. The role of the Firebird itself is oddly insignificant, and the Maiden isn’t really one I found relatable either. When Simone Messmer performed it, there was a moment at the end where she stripes off the green dress and hair net after Kaschei’s spell over her is broken, and she really tore off those clothes with shock and disgust, which was the first time I truly felt anything for the character. All three Ivans (Alexandre Hammoudi, Gomes, Cornejo) were fantastic, however, I did feel Herman was the most believable. I know some of you may be shocked because you think Marcelo gets the trump card but I’m not entirely without objective thought! While Gomes dances full out, Cornejo’s interpretation has such innocence and honesty that it really fits the image of a prince in white. Hallberg as Kaschei was deliciously maniacal and sinister, and it’s very gratifying to see him in a role that breaks the convention of him as such a regal, classical dancer. Again, though, Firebird can’t simply rely on the opportunity to see Hallberg go crazy…there has to be more substance than that and when the gimmick of the strange designs wears off, I didn’t feel the choreography really offered much substance.
While I appreciated the invested performances of the dancers in Firebird, and in some ways the fact that Ratmansky decided to take a risk and step outside of his comfort zone, but his Firebird simply isn’t for me. Maybe it was an error in programming to put something flawless like The Dream before it, because Firebird doesn’t tell the story with the same sort of wit and charm. What’s interesting though is I don’t know that it’s particularly controversial, though it does divide opinions rather easily. It’s hard for me to imagine this particular ballet as a masterpiece that will stand the test of time, though it will be fascinating to see how the audience reacts differently since it’s a joint commission for the Dutch National Ballet. For those who get that opportunity, I do encourage you to take my words with a grain of salt and see it for yourself before you join the club or discern for me what it is I’m missing!