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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

A Firebird in Portland

White Nights
Oregon Ballet Theatre
Keller Auditorium,
Portland, Oregon
February 28, 2004

by Rita Felciano
Copyright © 2004 by Rita Felciano
published 1 March 2004

Oregon Ballet Theatre is in good hands. With two world premieres— Adin by new Artistic Director Christopher Stowell and Firebird by budding choreographer and San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Yuri Possokhov—and Serenade, coached by the superb Francia Russell, the twenty-two member ensemble presented an evening of refined classical dancing that promised much for the future. Six of these dancers are new this season.

In his Firebird, which uses Stravinsky’s reduced 1945 version of the score, Possokhov has gone back to the folk tale at the heart of the narrative. A simple youth with a noble heart, here called Ivan, (Paul de Strooper) sets out on a quest and encounters two magical creatures, a glittering, golden firebird (Yuka Iino) and a beautiful girl (Tracy Taylor). After defeating the ogre Kaschei (Kester Cotton), Ivan has to choose between enchantment and reality. He makes the right decision, and the two live happily ever after.

One may regret losing some of the more rhythmically spectacular aspects of Stravinsky’s brilliant score, though this version highlights its shimmering Russian Nationalists-inspired elements. Less dramatic, less daring, it gave the composer a practical score which could easily fit into the repertoire of relatively conservative symphony orchestras. It also proved to be a good vehicle for Possokhov’s simple, but touching fairy tale.

Possokhov tells his story clearly and musically. The work also pays tribute, however, indirectly to great moments in ballet history.

We first encounter Kaschei during the murmuring overture. He materializes out of the dark as a menacing apparition, seated upon a throne of human bodies with a slave for a footstool. With his wild hair, the slaves’ long fingernails and warrior helmets with nose guards, the suggestion is one of a primitive, vaguely oriental monster, Possokhov’s one concession to Russia’s historic fear of the looming threat in its backyard.

In contrast, Ivan’s entry is all light and wonder. Wide-eyed and curious, he explores the unknown in skimming jetés and slow pirouettes. There is no wall. A painting of a tree branch with tiny yellow apples stretches across the stage. It looks as if torn out of a children’s book.

The Firebird, when she appears, is as curious as Ivan. They begin a dance of mutual exploration. This magical creature has a trembling, human heart. She lets herself be caught by her waist, by her leg, by her arms, as the mutual, gentle attraction keeps growing. De Strooper hops her side to side, swings her like a bell. But always he lets her go. The choreography here is wonderfully responsive to the music’s subtle rhythmic and tonal changes.

At one point Ivan spirals Iino down from a shoulder sit to a slide between his legs. One encounter rolls her across across the stage. These subtle hints at a sexual involvement flow so easily that they come across not as a reality but as a passing thought.

Possokhov also uses what might be called a moment of Giselle reversed. In the second act of Giselle, when Myrta watches Giselle and Albrecht, for an instant she recognizes her previous self, remembers, however, fleetingly, that once too she was a woman in love. Here, as they are about to kiss, the Firebird remembers that she may have a human heart but that she is enchanted, that she is a bird. Crossing her wrists, she flutters her arms wide open and bourrées away. And you think White Swan.

The entry of the princesses brings the action down to earth. A group of giggling girls, led by the most boisterous of them (Tracy Taylor)—distinguished by a little crown—they are your classic preteens, innocently sweet but also chafing against (parental) restraints. Shaking their fists, they stamp their feet and are rewarded by a shower of golden apples, as big as grapefruits. When they jete, they emphatically angle their feet.

When the handsome stranger enters their territory, they watch with wonder, and growing anticipation as he begins to court one them. Possokhov beautifully brings these whispering, excited companions into the action as they begin to learn what exactly will happen to them one day as well. The duet between Ivan and the Princess signaled their sexual, however vicarious, awakening as well. I must confess I was much more intrigued by the choreographer’s deft handling of this element in his story than by the pas de deux itself.

A charming, quick-footed ensemble number, excellently responsive to the music, in which the princesses’ various groups formations conspire to keep the two lovers apart, paid both tribute to Swan Lake and Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet.

Weakest in this Firebird was the confrontation between Kaschei and Ivan. Children who scurried about in what apparently were supposed to be spider costumes, stood in for the monsters. It appears that there is a tradition in Russia for this. Here I really missed the force of other choreographed danse infernales. A wonderful chase scene in which Kaschei and his cohorts pursue Ivan who holds the gigantic egg that the Firebird stole for him recalls silent movie antics. Everyone is wildly sprinting. In place. The egg explodes. Black out

When the Firebird returns to awaken the prostrate Ivan, Possokhov summarized his parable. Ivan has a choice. Will it be the magical bird or the real girl? Enchantment or reality? As the two “rival” love interests bourrée ellipses around Ivan, like satellites around the moon, he turns his head from one to the other, but finally fixes his gaze on his heart’s desire, and the bird quietly retreats into the shadows.

Instead of an apotheosis of the Tsar, Possokhov ends his tale with a group of village girls and swains celebrating the marriage of two of their group. They are simple, robust dances, in two’s, in circles, in London-Bridge fashion.

This lovely, clearly told and imaginatively fashioned Firebird should serve OBT for years to come. Its sets—all of them easily rollable paintings—also make this acquisition a good candidate for touring.

Adin (One), the other premiere, was theatrically less ambitious than Stowell’s other settings of songs in duet form, the mysterious and seductively lyrical La Captive to Berlioz which he choreographed for Diablo Ballet a few years ago.

For some reason, Stowell was attracted to four Rachmaninoff songs which, with the exception of “The Vocalise,” he had orchestrated by OBT Music Director Niel DePonte. Despite some harmonic interest, their thick textures and relative absence of rhythmic interest, they seemed to these ears an odd choice for these pas de deux. De Ponte has, however, a subtle ear for orchestration, an essential skill when attempting Russian music.

In a pre-performance interview, Stowell has said that he wanted a balance in this “White Nights” program. “I wanted to do something intimate and smaller. My more subtle, more Western, more inward-looking approach is probably the best for the program.”

Maybe that was the rationale behind these fairly modest pas de deux for three couples: Kathi Martuza with Matthew Boyes; Anne Mueller with Karl Vakili and Gavin Larsen with Artur Sultanov. But they are not particularly distinguished, nor did they build a collective momentum.

The first one is perfumed with a dream-like quality hightened by the surging attraction between Boyes who rushes onto the stage to raise the kneeling Martuza. They engage in waltzy encounters which include the type of convoluted, contortionist lifts that seem to be de rigeur in contemporary ballet choreography. But neither Stowell nor the dancers appeared particularly at ease with them.

Within a playful, fast pace environment, Mueller and Vakili’s duet was rhythmically more intricate. At one point, Vakili sprints after his partner. It was a nice touch. The intended trajectory is forward, yet they move backwards.

For the third pas de deux Stowell paired the tall and somewhat bulky Sultanov with the tiny Larsen. Moving in tandem, in unisons and mirror images, Sultanov often shadows her. Playing with the difference in size of these two unlikely partners, Stowell created some lovely images: Larsen hanging over her partner’s arm, he pushing her to and fro in ever-shorter bourrée patterns. They felt like the sun was going down.

The final movement, which brings the three couples together, needs much more thought. These walking patterns and canonic lifts simply didn’t amount to a summary.

Serenade, beautifully coached by Russell, received an imperfect though lovely interpretation by these dancers. The work had that requisite flow in which its breezy segments seem to flow arbitrarily out of each other.

It maybe heresy to say so, but a well-performed Serenade can convey the presence and surprise that is at the heart of contact improvisation. At the same time, of course, the opening arm that droops a little before ascending into its trajectory over the head and through the hear into that iconic fifth, looks likes it was preternaturally ordained.

This was a performance in which one became aware of the striking contrast between ballet’s use of upper and lower body. Of course, ideally the two work in perfect tandem. These dancers are not quite there yet. But the inclination and carriage of the port de bras carried an emotional sweep that made one want to overlook the occasionally missed beats and uneven arabesques. Footwork is technique. It can be learned—and it's needed here, particularly in the last image.

The opening arms of Alison Roper dark angel exquisitely shadow Larson’s overhead journey into some kind of paradise. The fact that she does it on point only seems to lift Larson even higher. But when the “pall bearers” also rise into relevé, they must do so together. They are a community. As is a ballet company.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 9
March 1, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Rita Felciano




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