Ratmansky’s Fantastically Funny, Tim Burton-Esque New FIREBIRD

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…


  1. I enjoyed your review of Firebird. I thought about flying back for it in OC, but decided to opt for the New York performances in June instead.

    You mention that the Segerstrom is smaller than the Lincoln Center theaters. You might be surprised that the seating capacity is actually 2,994:
    The staggered tiers accommodate more seating than you realize, and I loved the sightlines from just about anywhere in the theater.

    The-Theater-formerly-known-as-the-State-Theatre seats 2,554:
    (Sorry, I choke on the new name…)

    Kennedy Center Opera house seats 2,350:

    The Main Stage at City Center seats 2,257:

    The Opera House at Lincoln Center is much bigger, of course, at 3,800:

    I don’t know about stage dimensions, but the Bolshoi seemed to do just fine with their huge production of Don Quixote in spring 2010. The Russian immigrant community packed the house for the Osipova performances and I’m guessing they turned out for her in Firebird, too.

    I chuckled at your lament about the three-hour drive in traffic. That’s one of the big problems with LA. There’s a lot going on at various performing arts centers in downtown LA, Cerritos, Northridge, and more, but it’s such an ordeal to get to most of them . . . I found myself skipping all but the very best.

    • Thanks for all that info on the auditoriums! I didn’t realize it was actually bigger than almost all of the NY theaters. I guess maybe it felt smaller because I was sitting relatively close to the stage and didn’t really see all that was behind or above me. Another friend who saw the performance on Saturday said she didn’t think the stage was any smaller than others either. So I guess it’s not. It’s probably just that they need to work out better use of the stage or who’s traveling in what direction and when, etc.. There are often first night kinks like that – and I think I remember Diana Vishneva running into another dancer during her first Dneiper performance, and that was on the Met stage.

      Yeah, I don’t know what’s going to happen with all the traffic in this city. It seems like it’s only going to get worse. People who’ve been here a long time have told me it started getting out of control about 10 years ago, when more high rise condos started being built and the population increased exponentially but there were no new freeways built and they did nothing to increase public transportation. It is an interesting city in that it’s one of the largest cities in the world and the only one where the vast majority of people own a car and drive everywhere.

      • Excellent review, Tonya! I always enjoy your reviews since we hardly ever get any major tours here in Denver. Colorado Ballet is great, but it would be nice to get some other people in town. Also, I can’t believe the traffic got worse since I used to visit there years ago. Yikes! I didn’t think it was possible, but I guess it is. You may have to set up your own productions in your own neighborhood just so you can make it to the show!

  2. Hey Tonya,
    Did you know Fiorello’s is closed? Also Sushi A Go Go next door. A new Smith’s will be opening in that space next fall. Nothing stays the same! Hang in there with the LA traffic!

    • Oh no, I loved that place! So depressing… What is Smith’s – a grocery store? Hearing things like this make me less sad that I left NY…

  3. You missed the mark on your review and more importantly missed the best performance on Sunday with Misty dancing the lead as Firebird. As far as traffic, next time come earlier as the regulars do and enjoy the wide variety of dining spots before the show.

  4. I saw the Saturday night performance. I thought Merce Cunningham’s piece was interesting, though the “music” was hard to take. The vivid hues of the dresses and unitards were fantastic. Daniil and his partner stood out.

    Wheeldon’s 13 Diversions was dazzling, beyond beautiful. Everything- choreography, music, costumes, set, lighting- was perfect. What I would give to see it again!

    As for Firebird… I thought it had some very messy sections. Not a lot of actual dancing. The Firebird costume was a bit ridiculous, and Osipova didn’t really seem interested in the choreography, though I don’t entirely blame her. There needed to be more- sass? shimmer? avian exoticism? in her whole manner. I actually thought the ending was decent. But this ballet was certainly not Ratmansky’s best.

    • Thank you so much for commenting! Most of my readers are from NY, so I’m happy Californians are finding this blog. Yeah, I agree with you about it not being Ratmansky’s best in terms of choreography. It’s funny but I feel like when he tries to do a story-ballet, it’s more about the staging, the lighting, the characters, re-telling the story, etc. And not so much about the actual choreography. But when he does a more abstract ballet – like Concerto DSCH or Russian Seasons, etc., he concentrates so much more on imaginative choreography.

      Oh, I would have loved to have seen Daniil in the Cunningham!

  5. Tonya, I’m a random follower of your blog, but thank you for this review!! As an ABT lover in Utah, I’ve been dying to hear about their Firebird tour, even if from afar. Nice to get your view on things, makes me feel like I’m there 🙂

  6. I, too, was there for the premiere and I felt that any “holding back” by Osipova was probably due to the floor. It looked very slippery, and Julie Kent mentioned during the after-performance Q&A that the flooring needed for the lighting/special effects (which were truly amazing, don’t you think?) was rather slippery. It was my first time at the Segerstrom also (I’m also an NYC expat) and I was very impressed with the sightlines.

    • Another NY expat 😀 Thank you for commenting. I didn’t notice how slippery the floor was but that definitely could have been the problem. It seems everyone thought Natalia wasn’t dancing her best. And I didn’t stay for Julie Kent, though I really wanted to. I really had to get back in time to get up for work the next morning. Thanks for mentioning what she said. Very interesting about a special flooring needed for the lighting. Yes, the lighting was fabulous! I love how they did the shadows. It made everything so much creepier. It really was a spectacular show.

  7. I feel your pain for the 3 hour commute-our drive only took us 3 hours from way north of LA when we came for the Saturday matinee (Isabella Boylston’s cast) but the same drive took me 6 grueling hours (!) when I saw Royal Danish at the Segerstrom last May. I had to come on a weekday then so I could see Jorma Elo’s work. If you can help it, go on a Saturday (though that did mean I missed Misty Copeland’s cast 🙁 and I especially wanted to see her since I remember her as the prodigy we were all in awe of at San Francisco Ballet School’s summer program many years ago).

    • Six hours!!! I really wanted to see Misty too. Yeah, I think next time I will go out on a Saturday. I had really wanted to see the premiere, which was on the Thursday night, but I guess if it’s going to be such a long commute, a weekend will be better in the future. BTW, Misty’s going to be dancing a bit of FIREBIRD at the Guggenheim’s Works and Process next Sunday and Monday nights, which will be live-streamed over the internet. I’m going to write a blog post about it soon.

  8. Hi Tonya! We miss you sooo much out here! I kept thinking of you at Ailey this season, how much you would have loved it.

    Glad to read your Firebird review, I’m looking forward to seeing it at the Met this season.

    Regarding Fiorello’s – I think its still open, it was Josephina & the sushi place that closed. Smith’s isn’t open yet but it sounds like yet another upscale pub

    By the way – I’m hoping to come out to the Segerstrom for the Mariinsky’s run of Swan Lakes in October.

    • It would be so great to see you when you come out, Susan! Please let me know if and when you end up coming. I had wanted to make it to NY for some of the Met season but don’t know if I will be able to. I’ll let you know. I really, really miss you too!

  9. I am very nascent to “replying” – prefer to read and take in people’s comments, but having read the sampling from above felt so inclined to post my 1st reply. I have been attending ballet performances at OCPA for the past 8-10 years and yes I do agree that Natalia seemed somewhat reserved in her dancing -I too was expecting more of the “bravura” dancing that she is noted for (especially her leaps and Plisetkayas) – fortunately I am an ABT patron and will be in New York for ABT’s summer season, so will be interesting to see on the much larger Met stage. Tonya I agree wholeheartedly with your take on Simone – not only can the girl dance, but she has this terrific comedic streak in her and I just hope that Kevin makes more use of her talents (If anyone saw her in ABT’s Cinderella last summer as one of the wicked step sisters, then you got a glimpse of her “light” side – she and Luciana Paris stole the show as the evil step sisters). Also as one who makes the drive from San Diego, I ALWAYS give myself 3-4 hours and make a reservation at Maggiano’s Italian Restaurant (South Coast Plaza) – a cabernet and pasta dinner take the edge of any commute in LA.

    • Thank you so much for commenting! I’m so glad someone agrees with me about Simone! I’d totally forgotten about her hilarious evil stepsister in Cinderella, but yes, she nailed that too. I hope Kevin McKenzie makes more good use of her talents too. Thank you also for the dinner recommendation. I left about three hours early from work but next time I might take the day off or else go down on a weekend and make a whole evening of it. That restaurant sounds fabulous!

  10. Hello Tonya,

    I am a NY resident and regular at NYCB, ABT and others. I attended the NY ABT premiere of FIREBIRD with Osipova/Hallberg. I enjoyed the Ratmansky’s originality and the cast was quite superb. Now, you might find the following exchange between myself and Alistair Macaulay (re: his NY Times review) interesting if for no other reason as revelaing his selfabsorbed and totally unnecessary churlishness:

    Me: Though the ABT Firebird is not simply the suite, as presented by NYCB, it certainly IS NOT the complete Firebird. Please reference countless recordings of the complete Firebird as well as the Mariinsky/Gergiev video of several years ago which IS the complete Firebird.

    Maccaulay: You are entirely mistaken. I’ve been watching the Royal Ballet’s production of the complete “Firebird” since 1978, wrote a small book about the ballet in 1978, and have seen at least five other productions of “Firebird” cut and uncut as well as possessing multiple recordings. When I checked with American Ballet Theatre, its conductor Charles Barker wrote to me as follows:-
    “In Ratmansky’s version of Firebird we use the original orchestration from the 1910 score (for large orchestra) with NO cuts made whatsoever. We are using score and parts from a re-engraving done in the mid 90s, the general editor Herbert Schneider. (It is the best edition to date, however, we still found and corrected several hundred relatively minor errors.)In the former production of Firebird we did at ABT (1992?), we also used the original orchestration from the 1910 score but there were several small cuts inherited from that production. When those small cuts were made or by whom, I can’t say”

    So you have been wasting your time and mine. Please take time to listen to music more carefully in future. Sincerely,

    Alastair Macaulay

    Me: Wasting your time indeed. No need to take such an obnoxious imperious tone. In the ABT current version the music that serves as the Prologue has indeed been severely edited as has the music that serves as the introduction to the final scene. Sit with a complete score yourself and find out. (I take it that you can indeed read a score). Further, it is part of your job to examine factual claims such as mine for the sake of journalistic accuracy, let alone your own edification. By the way your snide remark regarding some feminist agenda you have or that you feel Ratmansky has made, is completely fatuous and self serving. Stick to the artistic merits. Thank you for your valuable time. I have not, contrary to your observation, feel that I’ve wasted my own.

    If you have not read his NY Times review here is a link: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/13/arts/dance/ratmanskys-firebird-for-american-ballet-theater.html?_r=1&ref=dance

    By the way, Fiorello is very much still open. If you come to NY let me know.

    Jeffrey Kaufman

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