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Nathalia Arja and Chase Swatosh in “Firebird.” Choreography by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

A New Firebird

Miami City Ballet presents a new “Firebird”

Broadcast
Miami City Ballet: “Firebird” Friday Night Spotlight series, May 29, 2020
Words
Oksana Khadarina

As the coronavirus pandemic brought live performances to a halt, many ballet companies around the world turned to online platforms to present their work and to engage with their audiences, bringing dance performances straight into our living rooms. In fact, these trying times created an unprecedented opportunity for people all over the world to enjoy a wealth of ballet productions, new and old, which the majority of viewers would never be able to see otherwise.

On May 29, Miami City Ballet inaugurated “Friday Night Spotlights”—a new digital performance series that feature four ballets: “Firebird” (May 29), “Heatscape” (June 12), “Nine Sinatra Songs” (June 26) and “Symphonic Dances” (July 10). The performances will be streamed on the company’s Facebook page and on Youtube and will be accessible for viewing at least 30 days after the first day of showing.

It’s only fitting that the first ballet of this exciting series is Miami City Ballet’s brand new production of “Firebird.” The ballet premiered on February 14, 2020 at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami as part of a triple bill which also included Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs” and Justin Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes.”  

It’s no surprise that MCB’s artistic director, Lourdes Lopez, selected for her company’s repertory not just any version of “Firebird” but a particular one: an iconic production of the ballet to Stravinsky’s famous score created by George Balanchine for New York City Ballet in 1949. Lopez, who is a former principal dancer of NYCB, knows this version of “Firebird” inside out. “I grew up in this ballet,” she wrote in the program notes. “I was a monster, I was a super, I was a princess, and then I was a Firebird.”

I was a monster, I was a super, I was a princess, and then I was a Firebird.

Lourdes Lopez

In her review for the New York Times, Anna Kisselgoff describes Lopez’s debut in the ballet’s leading role on May 27, 1985: “The present revival goes back to Balanchine’s original 1949 choreography of Stravinsky’s third “’Firebird” suite and redefines the firebird as a dominant dazzling dancer in red, with occasional wing movements. Miss Lopez filled out this conception with commanding emphasis—lending a sinuous mystery to her pas de deux . . . and offering a stunningly phrased final exit—arms back, chest up—at the close of the lullaby.”

“If you are lucky, you see Lourdes Lopez as the Firebird,” raved dance critic Arlene Croce in the New Yorker about Lopez’s dancing.

Yet the first-hand knowledge of the ballet wasn’t enough to bring this legendary production to Miami. Even Balanchine admitted the importance of stage decorations in this “Firebird,” conceding that his ballet “was an attempt to present Chagall’s paintings in action, with Stravinsky’s accompaniment.” Indeed, Marc Chagall’s original 1945 scenery for “Firebird” is widely regarded as a masterpiece in its own right and an intrinsic part of the production. (New York City Ballet never parts with Chagall’s treasured décor to avoid any risk of damage. This is the main reason why no other company in the world was able to perform this ballet until now.) To overcome this hurdle, Lopez approached the Jerome Robbins Trust (which holds the rights to the ballet) for permission not only to present the ballet but also to redesign the costumes and decorations anew.

Her request was approved on one condition: the new production must stay true to the original fairytale concept and Russian folklore.  

It’s a daunting task to follow in the footsteps of Marc Chagall; yet Lopez assembled a team of talented designers who took up the challenge, not only giving Miamian “Firebird” new wings but also boldly reimaging the ballet for the 21st-century while still maintaining its traditional fantasy-like atmosphere.

Wendall K. Harrington, who also worked with Alexei Ratmansky on his production of “Firebird” for American Ballet Theatre in 2012, created imaginative projections that propelled the story forward— from the first encounter of Prince Ivan and a magnificent bird-of-fire to his heroic battle with an evil sorcerer Kaschei the Immortal to the final triumphant finale, in which Ivan weds a beautiful Princess— conjuring onstage a genuine atmosphere of mystery and magic. Suspenseful and spooky, this “Firebird” is a fairytale and a thriller in equal measure.

Miami City Ballet’s “Firebird,” choreography by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

Anya Klepikov designed attractive costumes and sets, drawing her inspiration from the art of Palekh—a celebrated style of Russian folk painting to decorate miniature items (such as black lacquer boxes) with saturated colors and exquisite designs, traditionally depicting scenes and characters from popular Russian fairytales. The brightly colored costumes vividly contrast with the black background, creating an impression that every scene of the ballet is a Palekh painting personified. Her hand-painted front cloth for the production featuring a giant firebird is particularly impressive.

To get a true feel of the richness and magnificence of the stage decorations and wardrobe of this “Firebird” one must see this production in live performance. I felt that the recording didn’t do justice to the sets and costumes. It looked like the camera was fixed for the duration of the recording, showing the entire stage from afar and rarely zooming on the dancers. The colorful yet petrifying mob of Kaschei and his minions was especially at visual disadvantage—it was nearly impossible to fully appreciate all the weirdness and intricacies of their fantastic attire.

Miami City Ballet is a company of amazing and talented dancers. From the leading roles to the numerous ensemble scenes, this “Firebird” was danced to perfection.

Principal soloist Nathalia Arja was an impetuous Firebird—proud, intrepid and strong. Dressed in a flame-red slick unitard (instead of the customary tutu) decorated with a golden feathery tale, and sporting a spiky crown on her head, her Firebird had a modern look and a fearless attitude. She moved onstage in incessant manner, her brilliant, quicksilver bourrées accentuated her free-spirited nature. Not for a moment did I feel that her character was scared and meek when she was captured by Prince Ivan (the boyishly good-looking Chase Swatosh). Arja’s Firebird was rather surprised and curious to meet this handsome stranger; yet still she made a heroic effort to free herself from Ivan’s grip. In fact, Ivan was as flabbergasted by this unexpected encounter as she was; but as their duet progressed that feeling of initial shock gradually transformed into attraction and affection. This pas de deux, full of exotic, even erotic, movements and incandescent partnering, is definitely one of the most memorable moments in the ballet.

Nathalia Arja as the Firebird. Choreography by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. Photograph by Alexander Iziliaev

The monster scene, which culminates with a fight of Prince Ivan and Kaschei (the heavily-masked Reyneris Reyes), is another highlight of this production. Humorous and terrifying at the same time, featuring an army of creepy creatures attacking and taunting the bewildered Ivan, it was choreographed by Jerome Robbins, always a showman, in the best traditions of musical comedy and accompanied by the invigorating Stravinsky.

The ballet ends with a festive wedding celebration of Ivan and his beloved Princess (played with poise and sensitivity by Jordan-Elizabeth Long)—a powerful finale that celebrates the triumph of good over evil, with the cast forming a spectacular tableau which evokes a mural-size Palekh painting, impressive for all its exquisiteness, beauty, and grandeur.

The Facebook-based version of this recording features simultaneous comments of the action onstage by the company’s dancers. I would suggest going straight to the recording on Youtube: This fine production speaks for itself and it is best appreciated without narration.

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