McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ; March 12, 2014

Jerry Hochman

Alexander Dutko in Douglas Martin’s 'Firebird' for American Repertory Ballet. Photo © Leighton Chen (1)

Alexander Dutko in Douglas Martin’s ‘Firebird’ for American Repertory Ballet.
Photo © Leighton Chen

American Repertory Ballet’s ambitious full evening of dance inspired by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes featured the world premiere of Artistic Director Douglas Martin’s “Firebird”, the company premiere of former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Kirk Peterson’s “Afternoon of a Faun”, and a repeat performance of Mr. Martin’s “Rite of Spring.” Like the latter, the two new pieces represent risks taken, are different and audacious.

The myth of a magical, god-like bird with bright gold, purple, scarlet or peacock-like plumage that is aligned with a sun god or that possesses heat, light, or fire of its own, is common to many cultures. In Russian folklore, the Firebird is known as Zhar-Ptitsa, and myths surrounding the it have spawned several related fairy tales, the most famous of which are “Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf” and “The Little Humpbacked Horse”. Diaghilev and Michel Fokine mined Russian fairy-tale sources to create “The Firebird” for the Ballets Russes. Other incarnations of the ballet include George Balanchine’s for the New York City Ballet, featuring extraordinary artwork by Marc Chagall, and Alexei Ratmansky’s version two years ago for American Ballet Theatre, among many others. Both these ballets are big. And spectacular. And except for the Chagall art for the NYCB version, I don’t like them very much. Maybe smaller is better.

Mr. Martin’s new “Firebird” is smaller, and considerably ‘lighter on its feet’. And I found some of it to be impressive. But for everything about it that’s good, and there’s lots of that, there are also things that are confusing and disappointing.

The essential story of the Firebird is familiar – but this version is somewhat different from others. Most significantly, the Firebird is male, and has a larger and more commanding presence. And Kaschei has been reconfigured as a female character called simply ‘The Immortal’, who appears to be part bird, part Carabosse, and part Wicked Witch of the West. That’s fine. It shakes things up.

The opening scene is fabulous. The Immortal and her black-outfitted minions (that’s their name: ‘The Immortal’s Minions’) jump and slither around for a while in what appears to be a forest clearing (by the projection of trees on the back wall of the stage), before most of them gather gradually together to form a multi-branched, gnarly, and magnificent tree. A minion tree. The Immortal then attaches golden apples to each branch/minion’s hand. It’s an extraordinarily well-crafted visual accomplishment that had me silently cheering.

American Repertory Ballet' in Douglas Martin's 'Firebird'.  Photo © Leighton Chen

American Repertory Ballet’ in Douglas Martin’s ‘Firebird’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

Then things became perplexing.

As the traditional story unfolds, Kaschei is already supposed to have the maidens (here the Silver and Gold Princesses) – the friends of the princess who may or may not be the tsar’s daughter – under his spell. But when they first appear, there’s nothing to indicate that. They dance across the stage and around the minion tree, and then gobble the golden apples ‘planted’ by The Immortal. Immediately thereafter, they turn into stone.

Then the princess appears (here called ‘Sapphire Princess’), in disguise. But why should she be in disguise if she’s confined to that garden area of her castle? Anyway, she finds a black feather (a nice counterpoint to the Firebird’s subsequent gift of a red feather as a reward for his release), so she knows The Immortal has been there and is responsible for her companion princesses turning to stone. OK. And she explains through mime to Prince Ivan, who has wandered into the garden/forest clearing, that she’s really a princess from yonder castle. OK. But at some point the she removes her disguise, and voila, the princesses awaken from their stone stoned stupor. This made no sense to me on any level. Perhaps I missed something on this first viewing.

But, since Mr. Martin doesn’t provide program notes (other than a familiar poetic excerpt from “A Winter’s Journey,” a classic 1844 children’s story by Russian writer Yakov Polonsky, which scholars say was the first time that the myth of the Firebird was combined with that of Kaschei the Immortal), perhaps it would be more appropriate to consider the story as general background, whatever its details, and focus on the choreography and staging.  Both, however, are uneven.

Samantha Gullace, Stephen Campanella and cast in Doulas Martin's 'Firebird'.  Photo © Leighton Chen

Samantha Gullace, Stephen Campanella and cast in Doulas Martin’s ‘Firebird’.
Photo © Leighton Chen

In addition to an initial lovely series of dances for the Silver and Gold Princesses which nicely segue from one part of the stage to another with a lyrical, flowing quality to each dance, they are shown dancing around the minion tree while motor-mouth chomping on the golden/poison apples to the beat of the score. It’s strange, but also weirdly funny. The choreography for the Immortal One was both appropriately serpentine and aggressive-looking, and Samantha Gullace was a superbly dominating and fiendish evil force. I found the movement quality for the Firebird (Alexander Dutko) to be particularly interesting. Changing the gender allows an opportunity to present not just a beautiful, regal bird, but a powerful one.  For example, in most versions the Firebird is captured (and subsequently released) by Prince Ivan. Here, however, capturing him required the efforts of both Prince Ivan (Stephen Campanella) and the Sapphire Princess (Alice Cao), each using ropes to restrain him as if they were taming a wild mustang – or, perhaps more aptly, ‘Toruk, the Great Leonopteryx’ (the big red bird), from James Cameron’s film “Avatar”. But Mr. Dutko, who is the company’s strongest male dancer, also danced with a somewhat pained expression on his face, as if the regality he was born with was also a burden. Very interesting.

But between the piece’s opening and its conclusion, things tended to drag. Although they were danced warmly by Ms. Cao and Mr. Campanella, the duets for the Sapphire Princess and Prince Ivan were too similar and blended together. Similarly, from the time they were released from their stone state, the dances for the princesses suffered the same fate. Even the capture and release of the Firebird looked relatively bland (except for Mr. Dutko’s struggle). And curiously, the act that ends The Immortal’s tyranny appears almost as a staging afterthought: The giant egg that is the source of her immortality is almost hidden upstage left and not really noticed until Ivan moves forward and breaks it (thereby allowing her power to escape) – but this momentous event is reduced to the sound of air escaping from a seltzer bottle. Better to have just shattered the egg.

However, regardless of the merits of individual parts of the piece and any storyline confusion, its conclusion is as much visual dynamite as its beginning. With the threat from The Immortal gone, the Princess and Ivan wed, the Princesses are free, and the Firebird oversees the entire event with his blazing red wings gradually opening, then spreading, and then spanning the entire width of the stage. This Firebird is no pretty little red bird, regal or otherwise – he’s a benevolent god.

Kirk Peterson’s “Afternoon of a Faun” is also a different take on ‘standard’ versions of the story. This is not your father’s “L’après midi d’un faune”.

It begins in a forest area, with five young fauns prancing around like the hyper-active half goats they are, and there’s a lot of playful but aggressive athleticism and competitiveness. Soon a gaggle of nymphs happens by (or are invited/persuaded to join the party – it’s not clear), and then one of the fauns discovers that there are more fun things to do than chest-bucking.

Karen Leslie Moscato and Mattia Pallozzi in Kirk Peterson's 'Afternoon of a Faun'. Photo © Leighton Chen

Karen Leslie Moscato and Mattia Pallozzi in Kirk Peterson’s ‘Afternoon of a Faun’. Photo © Leighton Chen

Essentially, as Mr. Peterson presents it, this not a story of sensual arousal or temptation unfulfilled, whether of a faun for a nymph (the Nijinsky original) or one dancer for another (Jerome Robbins’s reimagining for NYCB). Nor is there any auto-eroticism. Rather, it’s lust in the afternoon; a chance encounter between a small herd of pubescent fauns, hormones raging, doing the equivalent of just standing in the forest watching all the nymphs go by. The alpha faun and an aroused nymph hook up, explore their budding sexuality, and maybe consummate (though it’s not clear). Then the other nymphs return from whatever they were doing with the other fauns, tell the featured nymph that she has to leave (perhaps her curfew is up), and the lead faun, happily spent, collapses in the arms of his fellow fauns.

There’s no artificial or emotionally camouflaged posing in this piece; the carnal desire is mutual and unrestrained. While the choreography is not particularly unusual or extraordinary, and to me losing the original’s understated pseudo-subtlety diminishes the ballet’s impact, Mr. Peterson successfully conveys the mood he wanted – aided by the diaphanous outfits on the nymphs (he designed the costumes) and the performances of Karen Leslie Moscato and Mattia Pallozzi, who made the youthful eroticism believable. The remnants of Nijinksy-esque, fragmented choreography that Mr. Peterson maintains clashes with the ‘contemporary’ style of the youthfully exuberant fauns and the couples’ erotic dance, but this isn’t an inappropriate nod to the original..

The program was completed by a repeat performance of Mr. Martin’s “Rite of Spring”, which was every bit as enjoyable on second viewing – perhaps more so, since I knew what was coming and was able to more fully appreciate his unusual approach and intelligently fresh choreography. It’s different without being different for difference’s sake. It works. And the dancing by the entire cast, again led by Shaye Firer as the Chosen One, Joshua Kurtzburg as The Boss, and Mr. Campanella as the failed Ad Man, was thrilling to watch.

That the two new pieces on this program weren’t quite unqualified successes is an inevitable consequence of taking risks.  But even with qualifications, the program demonstrate this company’s growing maturity and capability, and shows what an evening that is ‘inspired by’ Ballets Russes productions, but that doesn’t replicate them, can look like.