The Firebird burns brightly, with Ballet Ariel

Review​​​ ​​by Betsy Schwarm

In the world of classical music, The Firebird is a familiar title, though perhaps more as an orchestral suite than as a choreographed work. Ballet Ariel’s spring production (two more performances remaining) gives audiences a chance to see it more as Stravinsky intended.  

Yoshiko Brunson and Ballet Ariel dancers, Paquita

Moreover, being paired with Minkus’ Paquita (1881), Firebird (1910) is presented in a broader framework.  It is striking to observe how much ballet had evolved in a single generation:  what ideas had been left behind, and which still held attention

Beginning the performance with the Grand Pas Classique from Paquita served as an ideal warm-up both for dancers and for audience members.  This is old school ballet in the best way, truly ‘classique,’ as the title suggests.  Corps de ballet scenes alternate with solo and pas de deux variations – all of them of short duration – much as one finds in Tchaikovsky’s timeless crowd-pleasers.  Paquita reminded dancers and audience members alike what classic dance was before it fell under the spell of the 20th century, which is exactly where the production would go after intermission.

In the title role of Paquita, Yoshiko Brunson proved that smoothness and crispness were both in her tool set.  Her pas de deux with Anton Iakovlev intertwined dreamily with the exquisite violin solo that has long made this portion of the longer scene stand out as an instrumental treasure.  Here, that music was made even more compelling with the original choreography of Marius Petipa (1818 – 1910).  Certainly, one could craft entirely new choreography for it, though trying to outdo Petipa would be daring, indeed.

Marcelina Gaudini-Lancaster as the Firebird and Alexandru Glusacov as Prince Ivan

As for Firebird’s choreography, some of it – especially that for the title character – was what Michel Fokine (1880 – 1942) created for the work’s premiere June 25, 1910, in Paris.  However, other scenes were newly choreographed by Ballet Ariel’s creative staff.  Artistic Director Ilena Norton took on several of the most populated scenes, including the finale.  Resident choreographer Gregory Gonzales, a name long familiar to Denver area ballet fans, planned steps and motions for the evil sorcerer Kaschei.  He also danced the role, thoroughly convincingly:  the quirky restlessness that Gonzales brought to the part is exactly what this malignant magician requires, particularly given the energies with which Stravinsky filled the music.  

Gregory Gonzales, Firebird

Marcelina Gaudini danced the title role in Firebird, a role requiring not only bird-like lightness, but also a certain measure of magical spritz.  A dash of desperation when she has been seized by Prince Ivan (here, Alexandru Glusacov) is also required; this Gaudini conveyed not only with wide-eyed expressions, but also with somewhat more abrupt motions than had featured when she was flying free.  Even though it’s a fairytale, characters can still have personality, which one can convey just as vividly with motions and expressions as with words.

Abigayle Reider and Maya Vought

Given the stage time that the Firebird and the Prince spend together, one might forget that it had not been Ivan’s intention to make her the love of his life.  After all, one cannot tie down a magical spirit!  He is here to free the enchanted princesses, and by the closing scene, it is with one of these, Tsarevna, that he stands arm-in-arm.  Maya Vought danced the role with grace and nuance:  she is not simply one more princess in a crowd, but rather one who can inspire Ivan to at last turn away from the Firebird, who had captivated him from first glimpse.  

Kudos are also due to Ballet Ariel’s casting decisions, and the costuming staff that made it work.  Firebird requires a handful of dreamy enchanted princesses, but also a small pack of twitchy goblins as Kaschei’s minions.  Who says goblins can’t be female?  And who says dreaminess and twitchiness can’t be expressed by the same dancers?  The costuming staff briskly turned one type of character to another; after that point, it was up to the dancers, who were well up to the assignment.

Two performances of Ballet Ariel’s Firebird/Paquita production remain:   Saturday, April 29 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, April 30 at 2:00 pm, both to be given at the Lakewood Cultural Center, 470 S. Allison Parkway, in Lakewood, near the southwest corner of Alameda and Wadsworth. Tickets come in three pricing classes:  adults; seniors/students; and children.   

Maya Vought as the Princess and Alexandru Glusacov as Prince Ivan with Ballet Ariel dancers in Firebird

Tickets can be obtained from Ballet Ariel:​www.balletariel.org

However, the Lakewood Cultural Center can also oblige:​​https://lakewood.showare.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=748

Of the opening weekend performances at the Elaine Wolf Theater on April 8, audience members who’d attended specifically for one work or the other ended up with an intriguing, and utterly painless, comparative history of classic dance.  Paquita may sparkle, but Firebird electrifies, and indeed the two qualities are not entirely the same. Gratitude to Ballet Ariel for making the pairing so satisfying!


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