Igor Stravinsky’s sensational “Firebird” ballet demands a vivid design, and Simon Pastukh’s scorched, metallic forest (ignited by Wendell Harrington’s projections) along with Galina Solovyeva’s haute-goth costumes delivered a strong pop vision to Alexei Ratmansky’s new ballet for American Ballet Theatre. But on opening weekend at the Segerstrom Center, a number of ABT’s world-class dancers mixed poorly with the costumes and struggled with their mechanics. Performances varied a lot, and backstage tinkerings (with props, wigs, etc) were ongoing.
In the first and third cast, neither Firebird transformed beyond human form. Though they danced bravely, Natalia Osipova looked tough, rubbery and tomboy-ish in the red unitard and feathered cap, while Isabella Boylston — struggling for the right balance of attack — came off like a curious, Gaga-esque guest. The Prince’s costume — tailored jacket with upturned collar — referenced Elvis too closely. With slicked-down hair and a lusty swagger, Marcelo Gomes (Osipova’s Prince) suffered most from this identification. Regal and somewhat stiff, Alexandre Hammoudi (with Boylston) made it look military.
Ratmansky’s revised storyline and idiom of forward-leaping backwards-stepping tension finally emerged clearly with 2nd cast leads Misty Copeland and Herman Cornejo, a hypnotizing pair. Cornejo masterfully sustained tension and controlled his energy, thus giving even more force to Copeland’s abandoned, creaturely performance. With them, the audience’s standing ovation was absolutely spontaneous. Too bad Ratmansky wasn’t onstage that night, for he deserved it too.
In limiting the Firebird’s number of pas de deux with the Prince (she’s part of a flock in the opening and a pas de quatre member in the final lullaby), this ballet finally delivered a “Firebird” with a cohesive central figure, a bird that does not just resolve into an unattainable red-hot shadow of the Maiden. Thus the Maiden alone stands for romance, and ABT’s trove of soloists — Simone Messmer (1st cast), Maria Riccetto (2nd) and Kristi Boone (3rd) — excel here.
Rightfully, the Firebird’s real match is Kaschei, a bravura, scenery-chewing role for both Roman Zhurbin (2nd and 3rd casts) and David Hallberg (1st cast). A terrfic addition to his nasty domineering — a spewed puff of smoke to seal the Prince’s momentary frog spell — was added over the weekend. Still, there’ll be likely no more explosive moment on a ballet stage this year than Hallberg’s lightening fast folk-style “plistetski” kicks in the Infernal Dance. Just ignore his jade-colored hair and look at his feet.
[Featured in a slightly altered version on the L.A. Times’ “Culture Monster” blog.