Dance review: American Ballet Theatre premieres ‘Firebird’ in O.C.


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With his characteristic blend of sensitive classicism and impish humanity, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has updated the iconic “Firebird” into an extravagant and fanciful adventure for American Ballet Theatre.

The one-act ballet had its world premiere Thursday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts on an abundant triple bill that also featured the local premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Thirteen Diversions” (2011) and “Duets” (1980) by the late Merce Cunningham.


PHOTOS: ‘Firebird’ at the American Ballet Theatre

It was “Firebird,” however, that was most anticipated, both for its theatrical significance and for Ratmansky’s past successes in re-envisioning the Russian repertory. Choreographer Michel Fokine’s 1910 original –- sometimes called an anti-classical ballet for its then-unorthodox steps and costumes, and for Igor Stravinsky’s masterful score -– was one of the glory productions of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.

This new version, a co-production shared by Dutch National Ballet and ABT, where Ratmansky is artist in residence, is a pop-up book of bold wonderment. It is respectful of fairy tale details but has an earthly touch and an often-amusing spin on minutiae. Ivan, a very human hero, bumps headfirst into a tree. It’s the Maidens who covet the apples in this magical garden, not the Firebird, and when they offer them en masse to Ivan, we’re reminded of a different story. Scenic designer Simon Pastukh brilliantly conceives a forest of thick, ominous trees with spiky, finger-like branches topped with red leaves and spewing smoke. Wendall Harrington’s digital projections carry the pictures into infinity. Designer Galina Solovyeva dresses the cast of 36 in bright but unpretentious costumes and striking headpieces.

Ratmansky cleaves to the libretto’s spirit and intention, but some of his narrative shifts have mixed choreographic results. Rather than one Firebird, Ratmansky introduces a male and female flock. They clutter the stage, diluting the dancing’s patterns and the entrance of his lead Firebird, who on Thursday was the always powerful Natalia Osipova; she looked uncomfortable throughout the ballet, an unexpected twist for this excellent Russian ballerina. A pas de quatre intended as a psychological show of wits was a May dance of shifting partnerships for the sorcerer Kaschei, Ivan, Firebird and Maiden, without real focus.

Ivan’s interactions with the Maidens, transformed into enchanted forest nymphs in green party dresses, was a hilarious highlight. The night’s other pure delight was the against-type casting of David Hallberg as Kaschei. Hallberg was a reptilian force, owning the stage in black cape and green-tinged wig. Soloist Simone Messmer was a charming and deft comedian as the Maiden, while Marcelo Gomes once again shined as a witty and debonair leading man.

The Stravinsky score sounded a might thin but was still played to glorious effect by the Pacific Symphony musicians, Ormsby Wilkins conducting.


In “Thirteen Diversions,” Wheeldon created a flowing but repetitive piece inspired by Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 21. Four solo couples (dressed in white) and a corps of 16 (in black) rocketed about the stage in waves of leaping and high kicks, frequently performed in canon to the music (Charles Barker conducting). Brad Field’s lighting designs shifted for each section and Wheeldon played half-heartedly with shadows and space.

Misty Copeland stood out for her aggressive, full-body attack, while Stella Abrera and Eric Tamm executed a lovely duet.

Cunningham’s “Duets,” as its name implies, was all about dancing à deux, and the highlight was seeing familiar ABT dancers in a new stripped-down setting. Former Mariinsky ballerina Veronika Part was a particular delight, her long limbs scooping out space. Likewise, Paloma Herrera pared motion to its essence, leaping onto Patrick Ogle’s back with ease.

Warts and all, this was a program worthy of repeated viewings.


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-- Laura Bleiberg

American Ballet Theatre, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $16-$120. (714) 556-2787 or