The flap about “Firebird”

I loved Ratmansky’s new Firebird at American Ballet Theatre. The controversy it has stirred up among critics and balletomanes–many are ambivalent, some downright despise it–also makes sense, given the local, Balanchine production’s regular outings. 

 In the Balanchine and Fokine, the firebird is the only character that matters. Balanchine’s choreography for her–early and late–is particularly magical. Yoking shimmery swiftness to a stark bearing, she is the most alien of ballet heroines. She never appeals to your sympathy, or your humanity. You remain in awe of her. 

 Where the Balanchine and Fokine are weak–the maidens, Kaschei, the struggle, the story–the Ratmansky is strong. For their perfunctory symbols of good and evil–or banal and goonish, anyway–Ratmansky creates recognizable, empathizable individuals. But he doesn’t powerfully establish this difference from the outset. 

Before I begin complaining, though, let us revel for another moment. Here is a bit of my excited Financial Times review of the fantastic opening night cast. However I might have felt in the first 10 minutes, I left the ballet blissed out, as the review reflects:

The Firebird‘s music is alternately mystical and comically rambunctious. Stravinsky shimmers for romance and clangs for adventure. But the score has not inspired the dramatic ballets you might expect. From Fokine on, choreographers have not considered what the characters need from one another. Ivan – your average dolt of a Russian folktale hero – grabs at the Firebird for sport. He falls in love with the captive Maiden because she is there – in the monster Kaschei’s garden, where he has wandered. She is there because Kaschei has captured her. The plot goes round and round. 

The genius of Alexei Ratmansky – American Ballet Theatre’s artist in residence, former Bolshoi director – is to turn the lack of dramatic imperative to his advantage. The pathos and delight of his Firebird lies in the fact that this Ivan and Maiden are not destined to fall in love; they decide to. 

The ballet begins with Ivan (Marcelo Gomes) seeking romance in Simon Pastukh’s gorgeously disturbing forest of twisted metal trees. Why he thinks a post-industrial waste facility will prove a chick magnet is anyone’s guess, but it does attract firebirds, including stand-out Natalia Osipova. Gomes latches on to her. 


Wary: Marcelo Gomes and Natalia Osipova. Photo courtesy of ABT by Gene Schiavone. 

She surrenders like a bird in a cat’s jaws. She is lively only when pushing against him, cocking her head to get a better look. The pas de deux runs counter to many a ballet seduction, where the woman’s limpness is meant to signify her joy…..

Please click for the rest. Every click is a click for dance! If you hit a subscriber wall, you only have to register once, by giving them your email, and you receive 30 free articles per month–and no emails nagging you to subscribe. 

 Now the complaining, which may not be worth much. It is possible the opening only seemed weak because it had to clear a way through the competing Firebirds in my head. We will see later this week, when I watch the ballet a couple more times. [Update 6/25: So I saw the two other casts. Here is my report.]

 Ratmansky starts with Ivan asleep outside a forbidding wall. A row of apples–promise, temptation–rims the stage. The music begins almost below earshot: a primal stirring that soon glimmers with consciousness and increasing foreboding. Ivan awakes as if from a disturbing or puzzling dream intent on entering the unknown behind the wall. 

 But the short solo Ratmansky gives him as prelude to crossing that threshold is vague about his motivations. Even if Ivan’s desire is inchoate at this point–he has no object in mind–I think we need to know at least that he is wanting love, not that he is merely anxious, impatient, etc.. The solo could rise, like the murk of music, out of the ground. It could begin with Ivan thrashing around as if from nightmare, performing sleep-blurred versions of the ballet pantomime for “beautiful girl I want to kiss,” before he stands. 

 In this Firebird, the love story is no longer perfunctory. For Fokine and Balanchine, it doesn’t matter what Ivan uses the firebird for–or that this particular man is doing the using. All that matters is the firebird’s mysterious power and the promise wrested from her to bestow it on another. Ratmansky’s ballet, on the other hand, isn’t about people destined to love because they are innately royal or blessed, with even a magical bird on their side; it is about the rest of us, finding our blind way toward love. Love becomes the drama, not a boring given and aside. Some critics have wondered why the star Maiden and the star Firebird are dressed the same as the other maidens and firebirds. Why? Because anyone could have stepped into their role, if they’d wanted it. The tale hangs not on what these creatures are handed at birth but what they make of their gifts and liabilities. And Ivan is the catalyst of the action. In establishing Ivan’s defining curiosity before he meets anyone, Ratmansky could firmly set the terms for the rest of the ballet. 

 The second weakness follows fast on the first. Rather than a single firebird, Ratmansky has a small flock, male and female. Stravinsky’s solo flute seems perfect for a single bird–it sounds like one bird doing loop-to-loops of sparking excitement in the sky. But I understand why the corps: except for controlling, flamboyant Kashei, everyone in this Firebird belongs to a clan. That’s why excellent Galina Solovyeva has costumed them identically, even in their liberation. It’s not like being free suddenly turns you into a loner. You can belong and be free. Not every tribe is a prison; some serve as solace or even sources of pride. I think Ratmansky can adapt the music to multiple birds but not an undifferentiated flock. A group moving en masse has too much volume for this music. The dancers could swoop up, first one, then another, each with its solo surprise moment, until the firebird arrives and they scatter. I like the plucky bent legs, but there needs to be more rhythmic shock. 

Startling: Natalia Osipova heads the flock. Photo courtesy of ABT by Gene Schiavone. 

 But we’ll see if I agree with myself after I see it again. As beloved colleague Marina Harss has noted, Ratmansky ballets are layered enough to require a second viewing before you can really appreciate them. All the more when you’ve got other versions of the work on the brain. Do yourself a favor: see the ballet once to cleanse your palette–and a second time to enjoy. 

 The pas de deux between Ivan and the firebird is wonderful: a cautious rapprochement between captive wild animal and curious man. She doesn’t know that he doesn’t mean to ruin her. As a wild creature whose survival depends on eluding prey, she only understands polarities: total freedom or risk of death. In the course of the pas de deux, though, you see her beginning to experiment with the possibility of being touched but not destroyed. With the Fokine and the Balanchine, I’ve never been exactly sure when she is resisting and when relinquishing herself; these earlier productions subscribe to the Russian folktale obliviousness to the helpmates, the animals. The animals are always volunteering their services and doing triple duty for lazy human beings who take them for granted. There are many folk traditions that accord souls to animals they anthropomorphize. But the Russians, in their Christian orthodoxy, humanize them only to the extent that they prove useful. In this scheme of things, it only matters that the animals do the man’s bidding; how they feel about it (if they do) is beside the point.

You may say, “What? You want to bowdlerize the tales?” And I say: how many Cinderella ballets do you know where the wicked step-sisters get their feet chopped off?

David Hallberg as conniving, imperious, sexy Kaschei and his delirious devotees. Ersatz love is a drug. Photo courtesy of ABT by Gene Schiavone. 

Once the Maidens arrive, Ratmansky’s Firebird begins to soar–and keeps soaring until the curtain comes down. This choreographer is always great with groups of women–in Namouna and with The Nutcracker snowflakes, for example. He gets the pathos: the mix of camaraderie and individual invisibility. By the time the Maidens converge on the scene–with Simone Messmer’s endearing, comical Maiden in the lead–the ballet just gets funnier and funnier and more and more moving. At one point I began to laugh under my breath–like a feather were tickling my diaphragm–and didn’t stop for five minutes. Ratmansky makes you love these people–this Ivan, this Maiden and her clique, even Kaschei–and respect the forever mysterious bird, who is not, as she has never been, loveable–no more than fire is. 

 For more on Ratmansky and his Firebird, here is a profile I wrote for the Financial Times a few months ago, for the ballet’s world premiere in Los Angeles. And here is my addendum after seeing the remaining two casts, one with Isabella Boylston in the lead.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Baron Zlatkovski says

    I can’t understand these comments. What I remember from Fokine’s magical “Firebird,” the only legitimate choreography, from my point of view, is Prince Ivan, the hands of the corps de ballet, Khastchei, so many images, and, yes, the Firebird herself. His choreography for the Firebird was, for me, the least convincing of the whole ballet, but I only know the Fonteyn/Royal Ballet video, which omits much of the choreography, sadly.
    Ballets where the music and choreography are created hand-in-hand by two masters of their arts should never be tampered with. Even if you accept the idea of new choreographers stealing the music for their own “versions.” Too few people have been able to see the original for valid comparisons to be made. It is not like Shakespeare, where more-or-less faithful production are not hard to be found. In ballet, it is exceedingly rare for the original productions to be maintained, even when they are masterpieces. Nowadays, when perhaps through the miracle of YouTube, we are able to see some rare film of the Ballets Russes, we get a glimpse of an esthetic world we can only dream of, or see a watered-down version of in the great movie musicals.
    If Fokine, Massine and the other great choreographers were constantly produced everywhere, then we might be able to occasionally view someone else’s attempt as a change of pace. Like movie re-makes, the new choreography is rarely as good as the original.
    The real problem is the lack of effort choreographers and companies put into the music side of ballet. The biggest problem is the false notion that choreography, that dance exists without music, that it is a wholly independent art. Bullshit. Bad thinking.
    Without music, dance is movement theater. On rare occasion, a brilliant choreographer can create the effect of silent music. Rarely, though.
    For decades now, choreographers have simply put on records, pasted together music to suit their fancies, and produced piles of drecklich ballets. Even Balanchine is guilty.
    In general, you cannot put together unrelated pieces of music in one ballet, even if they are by the same composer. No. You just cannot do that. You are diminishing the music, and thus diminishing the ballet. If you respect your art, you will respect the music. Find composers to work with, learn to work together.
    Be artists, not milliners of movement. Forget Balanchine, please. He was a hugely destructive influence. Go see Massine, Fokine, Nijinska. Please.

  2. says

    Wow, are you for real, Baron Z? I feel as if I’ve come upon an exhumation.
    I don’t know where to begin, so mainly I won’t, except to say, dance may not exist without music (a dubious assertion, but I’ll let it go), but the music very much exists without dance. The idea that there is only one legitimate response to the music–the first, you say–is as primitive as the notion that a word– say, “snow”–and its meaning are essentially linked. Forget “neige” or whatever “neige” is in Norweigan, Sanskrit, Farsi, etc.
    Still, thank you for your impassioned response. And welcome to the 20th century–perhaps next year the 21st?
    ~) Apollinaire

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *