Ballet Austin in The Firebird
Photo by Tony Spielberg.
The Firebird was an immediate critical and commercial success for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes when it premiered in Paris in 1910. Based on a Russian fairy tale, The Firebird is the story of Prince Ivan and Princess Tsarevna, who is enchanted by the evil magician Kastcheï. Prince Ivan defeats Kastcheï, frees the souls of the bewitched travelers, and marries the Princess, all with the help of the beautiful, red-plumed Firebird. Originally choreographed by Michel Folkine, the ballet was the first in a series of iconic collaborations between Diaghilev and composer Igor Stravinsky. On Sep. 26, The Firebird opened Ballet Austin’s 2014-2015 season with choreography by artistic director Stephen Mills.
For me, the most interesting part of the ballet has always been the opening pas de deux, in which Prince Ivan captures the Firebird in Kastcheï’s enchanted garden. She pleas for her freedom until she gives him one of her magical feathers, which Ivan can use to summon her if he ever finds himself in a sticky situation. Aara Krumpe made for a fine Firebird and Paul Michael Bloodgood was equally capable as Prince Ivan.
Their work here is appropriately PG; they play the roles as storybook characters without subtext. From Krumpe, there was no flailing arms, no hysterical leaps into the air, no flirtatious bargaining that borders on the obscene. And from Bloodgood, there was no sense of treachery or conniving dominance. Their performances are literal. Krumpe is a bird who’d rather not be weighted to the ground, and Bloodgood suggests a good prince who would have let her go with or without a token of appreciation.
The most lively part of Ballet Austin’s iteration is when the Firebird comes to Prince Ivan’s rescue by putting a spell on Kastcheï’s minions, which causes them to dance until exhaustion. Krumpe seemed to really come to life in this section and danced through Stravinsky’s difficult, percussive music very well. This scene provided the most stimulating visuals as the Long Center stage was flooded with the company in exotic Eastern European costumes using blocky, repetitive movement that suggested an affinity to the original production.
Prior to the Russian fairy tale, the company performed Balanchine’s 1957 Agon. Also with music by Stravinksy, the ballet is just as musical as The Firebird, but it employs Balanchine’s usual concerns with mathematical order and geometric symmetry. Ballet Austin is a strong practitioner of Balanchine’s pleasing movements, including the pushing through of the pelvis, the decorative hands, and the flexed back. His footwork, while aesthetically light and mannered, is difficult to pull off, especially in keeping time with the music. Ballet Austin’s dancers handled it well, even though there were a few fearful moments during the pointe sequences.
In addition to what might be considered Balanchine technique, there is a performance quality to his ballets that encompasses a broad range of emotions. Agon is never seriously heavy, but it’s never frivolously light. The dancers smartly maneuvered between the ballet’s multiple tonal shifts, providing an enjoyable palette of humor and drama.