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Fiery Delight

Richmond Ballet’s pairing of George Balanchine’s “Serenade” and Ma Cong’s one-act “Firebird” encapsulates the beauty and quintessential oddness of ballet. The drama and simplicity of “Serenade’s” opening startled the audience into eager applause. The Richmond Ballet dancers built a community before our eyes and graciously welcomed us in. As the dance shifted through its four sections with many entrances and exits and varying numbers, I felt sad to see the corps go and a little thrill when they returned. This is not to dismiss the performance of accomplished soloists, guest artist Kristina Kadashevych in particular dancing with assurance the combination of speed and lushness Balanchine technique demands.


Richmond Ballet: Ma Cong’s “Firebird” and George Balanchine’s “Serenade”


Dominion Energy Center, Richmond, VA, February 17, 2023


Lea Marshall

Cody Beaton in “Firebird” by Ma Cong. Photograph by Sarah Ferguson

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When I say oddness, I mean the way this Balanchine ballet, for example, embodies Tchaikovsky’s alternately swoony and sparkling score but also gestures towards human romantic entanglements—gestures, but does not describe, leaving the viewer with glimpses into what Gia Kourlas calls “unknowable dramas.” What, we wonder, will that man do with those three women flinging themselves upon them? Where did this pas de trois come from and what does this jealousy mean?

Zaccaeus Page, Courtney Collier, and Izabella Tokev in “Serenade” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Sarah Ferguson

Balanchine himself said he simply incorporated real-life moments from rehearsal into the ballet as he built it, and that more women than men showed up for the classes during which he choreographed it in 1934. Here in 2023, I wonder—what would it be like to see this ballet scrubbed of gender? If dancers were cast as dancers, not men or women. The fundamental geometry of the dance would not change; its lushness as a physical manifestation of Tchaikovsky’s score. What does gender add to, or distract from in this ballet?

Richmond Ballet dancers in “Firebird” by Ma Cong. Photograph by Sarah Ferguson

After intermission, the curtain rose on the East Coast premiere of Ma Cong’s 2019 “Firebird” with a sombrely lit stage illuminated by a dancer in a long white dress (Eri Nishihara) soaring in long, slow arcs on a park swing suspended from the grid—a delicious opening. The traditional Firebird story was here embedded in the frame device of a girl wandering in a sculpture garden with her mother, a chance encounter with an admiring photographer after dropping her book (The Firebird), and a doze in which she dreams herself into the story. By the end of the ballet, I found myself wondering whether this frame were necessary. Beyond the lovely opening image and the closing scene, the frame seemed mainly to indicate that we were watching a contemporary ballet, not simply a revival of a classic work. But Cong’s choreography and the work’s design made that clear.

Where “Serenade” floated through air, “Firebird” dug into the earth. I appreciated Cong’s emphasis on the ground—dancers rolled, pas de deux explored the physics of moving down to the floor and away. Cong seems to revel in sculpting ballet vocabulary into unexpected shapes. Cody Beaton emanated sinuous, nervous energy as the Firebird, and in a comic moment during their initial struggle she kicked at Prince Ivan Tsarevich (Khaiyom Khojaev) almost petulantly. After she gave up her feather, the prince’s triumphant dance briefly mirrored her own serpentine movement. During the battle scene, I found myself wishing she could succumb to genuine rage against the evil Koschei (Ira White, serving it up) instead of a flurry of trying and exhorting others and trying again.

Richmond Ballet dancers in “Firebird” by Ma Cong. Photograph by Sarah Ferguson

Emma Kingsbury’s scenic design and costumes—in greys, blacks, and whites except for the Firebird’s brilliant red—included a broad set of steps up to a dark wall with a tall opening in which was set a huge, shadowy egg. The sculptures of the opening garden scene, in varied flesh tones, revealed themselves, of course, as real people imprisoned by Koschei’s spells. The princesses’ silvery, long dresses with black sashes added light and texture to the stage though occasionally, during the whirling of the full ensemble, they overwhelmed the dancing.

After the inevitable triumph of the Firebird and company over Koschei—vanquished utterly by Prince Ivan’s shooting the egg and a satisfying explosion—we returned to the park and the girl awakening from her dream, to find the photographer (looking suspiciously like Prince Ivan) returning her scarf, upon which scene the curtain dropped. We must imagine what we will of what may follow.

Lea Marshall

Lea Marshall has been writing about dance for over 20 years. Her work has appeared in Imagining: A Gibney Journal, The Atlantic, Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher, Dance International, WomenArts, Richmond’s Style Weekly, and Charlottesville’s C-ville Weekly. Marshall has worked as a producer and arts administrator since 1999, serving as co-founder and Executive Director of Ground Zero Dance for 13 years, and as producer/associate chair of Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU) Department of Dance + Choreography for 17 years. She currently serves as Director of Research for VCU’s School of the Arts, and on the board of the American College Dance Association.



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