Muziektheater, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; March 1 & 2, 2014

Maggie Foyer

Anna Tsygankova in Alexei Ratmansky's 'Firebird'. Photo © Angela Sterling

Anna Tsygankova in Alexei Ratmansky’s ‘Firebird’.
Photo © Angela Sterling

Dutch National Ballet have a new logo and a new title as they merge under the ‘Nationale Opera & Ballet’ heading. However the company is still presenting their unique blend of the traditional and the new-minted that makes Amsterdam’s Muziektheater one of the most exciting dance venues in Europe.

Alexei Ratmansky has remounted his American Ballet Theatre “Firebird” on the company. The narrative is rooted in tradition but the designs are unmistakably twenty-first century. Ratmansky, true to form, has created a ballet to suit a large company, one that is filled with colour, life and plenty of dance. Firebird comes off best. Created on Natalia Osipova, the role is big on jumps and big on passion. In lycra unitard and a bustle of assorted feathers the Firebird (Anna Tsygankova at the premiere; Maia Makhateli at the following matinee) streaks through the ballet like red lightening. Ivan (Artur Shesterikov/Remi Wörtmeyer) has a most impressive opening, standing on a stage blanked by shabby plastered grey wall with a single door that offers mystery in modern minimalism. His first solo, featuring innovative contemporary use of the classical form, is some of the best choreography in the ballet. But by the time we get to the enchanted maidens in green wigs and puff-ball ballet skirts, the comedy has turned goofy and the choreography traditional both in form and content.

The magician Kastchei loses much of his dominance and power as the character is played for laughs with a simpering shuffle and a silly green top-not. Neither Casey Herd nor Vito Mazzeo, both impressive dancers, had anything of substance to get their teeth into and little chance to create a sense of malice. Firebird’s initial duet with Ivan has its thrills but the final trio, as the pair confront the magician fails to rise to a dramatic climax.  This life-and-death battle pales as Firebird dances aimlessly with Ivan and Kastchei in turn.

“Firebird” has always been something of a problem ballet. Fokine’s version, so rich in spectacle and drama, has all the best choreography in the first fifteen minutes. Ratmansky’s ballet introduces more dance but is less successful in telling the story. However Simon Pastukh’s dramatic set compensates by offering its own drama in a metaphysical forest of metal trees with flame red tongues that is never quite what it seems to be. It fluidly shifts to become a gothic nave and, in a grand finale, the trunks open to reveal a blaze of eye-watering bling that provoked a spontaneous standing ovation.

Maia Makhateli and Jozef Varga in Frederick Frederick Ashton's 'Midsummer Night's Dream.  Photo © Angela Sterling

Maia Makhateli and Jozef Varga in Frederick Frederick Ashton’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Photo © Angela Sterling

The traditional contribution to the evening, Frederick Ashton’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (more usually known simply as “The Dream”) delivered on both the dance and the drama. The ballet has been in the rep since 1977. The Dutch fairy corps may be more spirited than their English counterparts – Shakespearean mischievous rather than Victorian dainty – but their pearly pointes had a corresponding twinkle. Puck found a brilliant interpreter in Remi Wörtmeyer, who proved himself master of earth and air, spinning and leaping with equal ease: a curly haired cherub with decidedly wicked intentions.

Maia Makhateli’s Titania proved a feisty consort to Jozef Varga’s Oberon. Her fine-tuned technique was a joy as she tripped through Ashton’s intricate footwork but the partnership didn’t hit the heights. Varga, who should have been so right for the role had an unsteady start and sadly didn’t give the performance he could have done.

The matinee cast fared better. Jurgita Dronina was a captivating Titania, imperious yet meltingly beautiful and getting her way with sugar sweet determination. Isaac Hernandez was an intriguingly arrogant Fairy King. He tackled each challenging entrance with quiet determination and scored brilliantly. His Puck, Serguei Endinian, also had a good day, producing some whizzing pirouettes. Between these three and the supporting cast of lovers and mechanicals, the ups and downs of the comic drama were batted back and forth to the delight of the audience. The ethereal voices of the children’s choir, led by Eline Welle, was the crowning glory.