Firebird at the NYCB

The NYCB is known for its diverse triple bill offerings, but occasionally one piece on the program so dominates the evening that one rushes home and can hardly think of anything else. That happened tonight when the NYCB performed Firebird, with Ashley Bouder in the title role. She was so commanding, and the performance such a memorable introduction (for me) to the work, that it was like. huh, Donizetti Variations? There was a Donizetti Variations?

The evening did begin with Donizetti Variations, one of those happy, spritely allegro dancing confections that Balanchine could and probably did cook up in 5 minutes. It's set to a very catchy score from Donizetti's Don Sebastiano, and my friend in intermission observed that it resembled Bournonville in the emphasis on sharp footwork, lightning fast beats, and tricky direction-changing jumps. The women even wear modest, knee-length Bournonville-like costumes. Balanchine did insert a weird, totally out of nowhere joke move in the ballet where one corps girls fakes hurting her foot as she comes down from an entrechat. She makes a big deal of grabbing her foot in pain and hobbling off. The audience laughs but I kind of didn't find the gag all that funny, and it's weird that Balanchine, who was the type of man so famously polite he hand-picked perfumes for his dancers, would insert that kind of joke in the middle of a ballet. It's supposed to look easy, but the steps are tricky, and during the first half of the ballet, the six girls of the corps de ballet had noticeable problems dancing in sync both with each other and with the orchestra. It was nothing major, just a pirouette finished behind the beat here, a supported arabesque out of unison there, but the impression was that of a piece that maybe needed more rehearsal time. The central couple, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz, were technically flawless but also not very dynamic. The role used to be a favorite of Edward Villella and on the Soviet tour he was such a sensation the audience demanded (and got) and encore in Donizetti. De Luz seemed a bit careful, his landings having the split second hesitation that is so fatal in a ballet like this. Megan Fairchild was better -- I particularly loved the diagonal sequence where she does a supported pirouette with her partner, and then she kind of jumps in the air on her own and does a rotation, and then goes back to a supported pirouette, and back to a unsupported jump, and this repeats itself. Very spritely.

After the intermission it was In Memory Of ... I guess I'll just come out and say this really isn't my favorite ballet, even though I love Alban Berg's Violin Concerto. I find some of the Robbins cliches (girls in long flowing pastel dresses), and the overly literal ending (the Girl is in Heaven, flanked by Angels, and all is white and beautiful) to be a trite interpretation of Berg's haunting but difficult music. It's turned into Angels at a Gathering. That being said, Wendy Whelan was just lovely as the Girl/Angel, and she was partnered beautifully by both Jared Angle and Ask La Cour. But this ballet just doesn't do it for me.

Now, onto Firebird. Before tonight I was only familiar with Fokine's version, and I had actually watched a tape of the Fokine ballet before I went tonight, to compare and contrast. I soon learned to appreciate Balanchine's work as an independent interpretation of Stravinsky's famous ballet score. There was only one moment where I missed a Fokine step, and that's the moment in Fokine's ballet when the Firebird turns towards the Prince, arches backward in a luxurious cambre, and flicks both her arms, fingers, and head, like both a trapped bird and a flickering flame.

But Balanchine's version is a very different ballet. First of all, it uses an abridged edition of the score, so it's shorter, quicker, but these musical cuts I found surprisingly unobtrusive. I also understand that Balanchine rechoreographed the ballet several times. It was originally designed for the magisterial, commanding Maria Tallchief, then redesigned for the feather-light, mercurial Gelsey Kirkland. The version danced tonight I would guess incorporates both versions. The main difference I could see with Balanchine and Fokine is that in the Fokine, the Firebird is a cipher. She's feral, alluring, but ultimately unknowable. In Balanchine's version, she's more womanly. If Balanchine's choreography echoes any ballet, it's Swan Lake. The Firebird's entrance with the big grand jete diagonal recalls Odette's entrance. In the pas de deux with the Prince, the Firebird has a repeated stance which is like an off-balance lunge where her face and arms are towards the audience. It resembles that moment in the Black Swan Pas de Deux when Odile inevitably faces the audience, smirking, arms spread, a temptress seducing not just the Prince but the audience.

For comparison I've found these pictures:

Black Swan pas de deux

Another moment which recalls Swan Lake is after the Prince has been rescued by the Firebird from Kastchei the Wizard and the Monsters, she stands all alone and circles the stage, her arms in a slow, undulating flap that is identical to Odette's iconic, mournful wing-flapping exit in Act II. In the Fokine version, the Firebird saves the Prince and her role is done. Balanchine gives us that extra moment to humanize the Firebird, who's now alone again as the Prince marries the Nice Normal Girl. Balanchine was often accused of making ballets that lacked emotion (I don't agree, but it was a criticism). But I think he put the feeling and emotion back in Firebird.

Otherwise the ballet is more spectacle than dance -- the Prince's Bride and the Maidens are on pointe (unlike Fokine), but dressed in these heavy, Russian folk-dance dresses. They also dance on the downbeat, more like folk dance than ballet. The Monster scene is less menacing here than in Fokine -- it looks more like the Nutcracker's Mice Battle, just with more colorful, grotesque costumes. The Chagall backdrops are famous and give the ballet an impressionistic, surreal feel.

Ashley Bouder was simply spectacular as the Firebird. She's a natural jumper, and what's more, is able to jump across the stage in a light, airy way to suggest, well, a firebird. Bouder can be a nervous performer -- she's famous for occasionally falling -- but this is one role where I think the nervous tics are inherent in the role. The role almost takes all of Bouder's most prominent qualities (her jumps, her speed, even her tendency to turn her face towards the audience in a very forward, prominent manner) and showcases them. I absolutely loved her, and I'll remember her gravity-defying flying across the stage for a long time.

As the Prince, Jonathan Stafford wasn't quite on Bouder's level. He doesn't have much stage presence, and seems, well, kind of lumpy. Doesn't convey the sexual aggressiveness that's suggested by being a "bird hunter." Good partner though. Savannah Lowery replaced Rebecca Krohn as the Prince's Bride and she was perfectly charming except the role is very unmemorable.

But this is probably because the performance was so dominated by Bouder that everyone and everything else seemed secondary. Brava to Ashley and bravo to Mr. B for showcasing his ballerinas with such love and care that great female dancers can continue to draw inspiration from his choreography for what I hope is an eternity.


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