Thursday night I went down to Costa Mesa for ABT’s premiere of Ratmansky’s FIREBIRD at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. I’m so glad I braved the nearly three hour drive (with traffic; without about fifty minutes) from west L.A. because it was an excellent evening. This is I think Ratmansky’s most theatrical, spectacular ballet – certainly of those he’s done for ABT – and I loved it. (Photo above of Natalia Osipova in the lead role, by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Segerstrom.)
The curtain opened onto this magnificent set. The prince is supposed to be in a forest searching for his lost beloved, and so strewn about the stage were these fantastically creepy dead tree-trunks with spindly branches that magically sprouted blood red blossoms. I was so enchanted with those tree trunks, which to me resembled a witch’s hand, and the crimson blossoms bright red fingernails. It all had a very fantastical Tim Burton feel.
Then behind a scrim we see the prince, Marcelo Gomes, dressed all in white, searching about frantically for his lost maiden. At one point, he bumps his head into a branch on one of the creepy witch-hand trees. The audience seemed really to appreciate the humor in this; they laughed at this, and laughed pretty frequently throughout.
Soon, a flock of red birds devoured the stage, and Natalia Osipova emerged as their leader, or the most remarkable one, whom the prince became taken with. This was the one problematic part for me. It makes sense to have a flock of birds with a leader rather than one bird, as in I think most versions of this ballet – but the stage here was really too small. Natalia went to take one of her famous leaps but then seemed to hesitate and took it down several notches. There were too many birds, and as she turned to run to one side of the stage, she almost smacked into one of them. I think that set the note for the rest of her performance, because unfortunately, she just seemed to be holding back throughout the whole thing – not only in her solos but also in her pas de deux with Marcelo after her firebird is captured by his prince. I didn’t really see her struggling to be set free, and when she gave him her magical feather, it seemed more an afterthought than in barter for her freedom. Marcelo is ABT’s most dramatic male principal and he kept up the act well, being enthralled with the firebird, but ultimately feeling sympathy for her and setting her free, but you could tell he was also concentrating on making his dance partner feel as assured as possible. I’m sure as they iron out the kinks, Natalia will be perfect though.
Simone Messmer actually stole the show to me. Well, she shared it with David Hallberg (who, judging by the cheers, has quite the fan base in L.A!) Simone danced the role of the maiden who captures the prince’s attention, and she danced it with a really wonderful sense of humor, as she alternated between being controlled puppet-like by a sorcerer’s spell, being annoyed by the prince’s intrusion, then falling for him, then being fought over by him and the sorcerer, who keeps trying to retain his spell on her.
Ditto for David, who danced the part of the sorcerer set on keeping the prince and maiden apart. We first see David’s wicked magician in shadow form, from the back of the stage, which looked both malevolent and funny at the same time. When David emerged, he sported this big green bouffant, and Ratmansky had him chasing the maidens about the stage in this bent-legged run (almost like a Russian folk dancer). He was really both creepy and funny at the same time.
The comedy continued when the firebird returned (after the prince, threatened by the sorcerer, summoned her protection) and compelled everyone to dance themselves silly. It was particularly interesting to watch David here. Ratmansky gave him these rather crazed lightning fast steps danced in place that reminded me of a sequence he danced as the mentally unstable boyfriend in Ratmansky’s earlier ballet, On the Dnieper. There they were meant to convey extreme anger and were frightening because it meant the character was about to become unhinged and violent; but here they’re more funny than scary, and I think that’s what Ratmansky intended. I think Ratmansky is making an actor out of David Hallberg He certainly got a great brilliant comedic performance out of Simone.
I wasn’t really a fan of the ending. Prince and maiden danced, sorcerer and firebird, then they switched partners, but the sorcerer tried to reclaim the maiden. Finally the firebird shattered the egg containing the sorcerer’s power and prince and maiden were sweetly reunited. The last scene is of the firebird being held up high by a group of men, in a group lift, heroizing her. I don’t remember the firebird appearing at the very end of other productions, and it felt a little too cutesy to me, or a little too ‘good triumphs over evil.’ I realize that’s the theme of a lot of ballets but I was expecting a bit of a twist here since the whole was more comical and different in tone than other versions.
Other dancers appearing as the firebird later this week are Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston. I can’t make the trek to Orange County again this weekend unfortunately, but will be really interested to hear what others think of the other casts.
The other two dances performed were Christopher Wheeldon’s Thirteen Diversions and Merce Cunningham’s Duets. At first I’d forgotten I’d seen Thirteen Diversions – it premiered during ABT’s Met season last year. I was charmed by it all over again; definitely one of my favorite Wheeldon ballets. Misty Copeland, Stella Abrera, and Craig Salstein stood out to me. Misty really made that ballet she was so spellbinding as the girl who seems to struggle with herself and her partner. What I like about this Wheeldon dance is that he really allows the dancers to create characters; it’s not just about musicality and creative patterns (although that’s there as well). Craig Salstein was sweetly funny as he kind of flicked his partner off stage and into the wings, so he and his male cohort could have the stage all to themselves.
Duets was first on the program, and it was new to me. It got off to a slow start. It seemed the first two couples were stiff and nervous and just going through the steps without giving them much meaning. But the fourth couple – Xiomara Reyes and Arron Scott – changed the tone when they took one look at each other, as if to say, “let’s go, let’s do it!” and took off on a quick paced, very precisely and charmingly danced sequence of steps. After that, everyone else seemed to unwind and perform more full out and with intention. I’m really beginning to like Xiomara. She and Arron were my favorite couple, but Julie Kent and Jared Matthews got the most applause. At the end of the whole program, David got the most applause – people really love him there.
This was my first time at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The building is so interesting. The orchestra is on the right half of the theater (if you’re facing the stage) and the mezzanine is a raised portion on the left half. And then the balcony is up above. It’s definitely not as big as the Lincoln Center stages or City Center, but it was packed full of a very enthusiastic audience. It made me wonder if most lived around there or if people often drive down from L.A. I’m sorry, I’m still this stunned New York expat unable to fathom how people can drive three hours a day in gridlock and not go insane!
It was kind of unsettling seeing my favorite N.Y.-based dancers in L.A. I looked around the press section thinking there must be some N.Y. critics there to cover a premiere, but I didn’t recognize anyone and a Facebook friend later told me Macaulay was with her at a N.Y. performance Thursday night. And the one L.A. critic friend I have wasn’t there either. It made me sad. I really miss spotting the writers in the audience, wondering who’s going to write a review, who’s covering for the Times, who’s thinking what, who’ll write what. And most dearly I miss hanging out with my N.Y. dance-goer friends on the Koch Theater promenade during intermissions, or at Ed’s Chowder House or Fiorello’s afterward to discuss a performance, especially a premiere. I guess I’ll eventually make those friends here…