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Firebird program


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Publicity for the April program of Atlanta Ballet this season was organized around the company premier of Possokhov's Firebird and the presence of a live orchestra. Unfortunately, the live orchestra was present only for Firebird and the rest of the program had recorded music. I understand the financial exigencies, but I wish the problem could be solved.


This was the second of two 'new' programs put together by the company's new director and if the first was dominated by work at least partially distinctive, if not unique, to Atlanta Ballet (a world premier by Gemma Bond and a North American premier by Liam Scarlett) this program was characterized by more familair fare--something people have expressed concerns about on another thread.  When it comes to the specific case of Atlanta Ballet, I don't entirely share those concerns for reasons I've tried to explain on that thread, but I will note that one of former Director McFall's more interesting Atlanta-specific projects is coming back next month and I am greatly looking forward to it--an adaptation of Tenessee Williams' Camino Real commissioned from Helen Pickett.


Anyway, for myself I was very happy to see the company giving a respectable and lively account of Balanchine's Allegro Brillante. Even having to dance to canned music, the dancers looked energized and alert -- in some key passages I was just delighted by the crispness of the ensemble's timing as one couple would shoot the woman into arabesque on point and then another and another.  (Elyse Borne did the staging.) Since it has been over ten years since the company danced any Balanchine and since last month's Petipa effort at times saw the company's reach exceeding its grasp, I felt some trepidation when the curtain went up. But the performance was genuinely pleasurable: I didn't just have to root for the dancers, I could enjoy and admire them.


The last time I saw this ballet was at New York City Ballet with Tiler Peck in the ballerina role -- a performance of preternatural facility and musicality; it was as if she could dance at any speed fast, slow, or in between at will, and even change her speed in the middle of a phrase.  Hard to put into words how good it was. (This week's reports on NYCB's season opener with Peck in the same role suggests she may now be outdoing the performance I saw!) Atlanta Ballet's Nadia Mara doesn't dance with that kind of facility etc, but I will note one quality she and her partner Alexander Barros brought to the ballet that I did not find to the same degree in that relatively recent NYCB performance, which was a sense of romantic connection between the leads, a quality that Maria Tallchief talks about as important to Allegro Brillante in a Balanchine Foundation Interview. And it does make a difference to the overall feel of the ballet. On the technical end,  I thought Mara handled the back and forth whirl of double pirouettes very well (at least to my relatively untrained eye), with maybe one little glitch at end of the performance immediately countered with a terrific overhead lift for the final exit as, with what looked like wonderful ease, Barros got her directly over his head so her extended leg pointed right up to the sky.


The ballet itself is, I suppose, "minor" Balanchine, but it really is amazing how much it does with very little--small numbers of dancers, unfinished score and not one of Tchaikovsky's greatest, and even rather repetitive steps: how many times can a ballerina double pirouettte or dip into arabesque penché ? Yet somehow he takes these modest ingredients and makes them into a concise, complete work of art with just a hint of a deeper romantic inner life, quite nicely brought out by the Atlanta Ballet performance.


The ballet was warmly received but in all candor the biggest cheers of the evening came for Kylian's Petite Mort with Firebird a close second. I had never seen the Kylian before--indeed have seen very little Kylian choreography other than the joyful Sinfonietta. Pre-performance publicity from Atlanta Ballet claims it has been danced by 60 companies, so I guess it counts as something of a modern classic. Strictly speaking I can't judge how well it was danced, but certainly I can say it was effectively danced--special praise for Tara Lee.  I also found the work's construction on first viewing a little puzzling and the swords and gowns-on-wheels etc. almost kitschy (intentionally? Ironically?) and the ending arbitrary...which Kylian's note for the ballet suggests is intentional. For the rest, I have seen the ballet described as "erotica" and I can't come up with anything better so I won't try. I didn't dislike it, but wasn't crazy about it either.  Seeing it so soon after Scarlett's Vespertine which also played with 18th-century decorum set in contrast to pseudo-nudity and sexual passions, it struck me that Scarlett may have been influenced by it...though Scarlett's work actually had more psychological complexity to my eyes. In any case I might see the Kylian differently if I saw it with his own company... but I'm pretty sure I prefer my stage-sex more sublimated.


Based on pre-publicity, the program's official "big" event was the Possokhov Firebird.  This had many charms and I enjoyed it, but feel I need to see it a second time to settle my thoughts as it's quite different from the other versions I've seen and which I found hard to put out of my mind.  For one thing, it's much less opulent visually, which took me some getting used to--a reaction I had not anticipated. 


As people who have seen the ballet with SFB or Oregon Ballet Theater know, Possokhov thickens the dance roles by giving Kaschei spectacular demi-character dancing, putting the princess and her friends on pointe, giving Ivan some showy classical dance passages and giving Ivan and the Princess an extended pas de deux. And he has thickened--or perhaps just sentimentalized--the story by having the Firebird develop an attachment to Ivan. In the end she is left mournful and given a rather touching solo.  This also makes her something of a Little Mermaid type character--a supernatural being who saves a human man's life, but can never win his love.  The powerful choreography for the Firebird when she returns to save the day was one of the ballet's highlights, possibly because Jackie Nash came more into her own in that portion of the ballet. I found her a little less effective in the mournful final solo, but the solo itself still seemed intriguing. I also enjoyed the choreography for the communal celebration at the ballet's end though I can't swear I wasn't simply swept away by the score at that point. And I always love to see Alessa Rogers who brought a lot of humor and charm to her goofy princess. In general, Possokhov's slightly ironic treatment of the score and story does, in distant ways, recall Ratmansky's as well. (I know Possokhov's ballet preceded Ratmansky's by some years...)


Anyway, the performance had the charms of a slightly ironic fairy tale and a stunning score performed live, but it did, on first viewing, rather strike me as "a good Firebird for a small-to-mid-size company without a huge budget for sets." This both is and isn't a compliment.  I suppose Balanchine's Allegro Brillante could be described as a "good classical showcase for a small-to-mid-size company without a huge budget for sets,"  but that's not what you think when you watch it. (At least I don't.) But here again I really would need to see Possokhov's ballet a second time to settle my thoughts.


Overall, though I obviously have my strong personal preferences in choreography, I found this a pretty substantive program. More live music please.



Edited by Drew
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Thanks so much for the detailed response.  It's been a while since I've seen Allegro Brilliante live, but I agree, it's a ballet that many companies seem to do as they work up to more complex Balanchine.  Still, it has some really special moments, and I'd be happy to see it again.


The Kylian did very well here in Seattle (especially paired with Sechs Tanze).  In some ways I think the community has outgrown this kind of "edgy" work, but past that I think it has some very evocative sequences in the duets, and I know the dancers appreciate the opportunity.


Firebird is a tricky ballet no matter whose production you're looking at -- the music at the end is so beautiful, and usually there is absolutely no story left to tell.  The relationship between the bird and the prince isn't meant to be a romantic one, and the scenario you outline sounds a bit like Giselle, but I can understand the choreographer's desire to make something specific to that lovely part of the score.

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