“Imagine a fish out of water,” instructs choreographer Alexei Ratmansky to the American Ballet Theatre dancers portraying the 13 captive maidens in his new production of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.” Mesmerized by Kaschei, the evil sorcerer, they flop around as he zaps them with his wicked energy.
Speaking in a hushed voice with a soft Russian accent, Ratmansky, working in one of ABT’s no-frills Manhattan studios, conjures up traffic patterns for the corps de ballet, who promptly obey directions. Questions like “What count do I fall on?” arise. Ratmansky fields them with quiet authority and plows ahead, demonstrating Kaschei’s salacious, finger-drumming hand gestures and the proper snaky weavings of his cape through the cluster of bodies as the accompanist hammers out Stravinsky’s thorny rhythms on the piano.
A former Bolshoi Ballet director who is now ABT’s artist in residence, Ratmansky globe-hops to create works for such prestigious ballet companies as the New York City Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. His “Firebird” makes its world premiere Thursday at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, a co-producer of the ballet with ABT.
Ratmansky’s reasons for taking on “Firebird” are simple. “I love the score. You can hear all the details of the action in the music. I love that,” he says. “I feel like it’s a good moment for this ballet, and ABT has the right cast for it.”
The St. Petersburg-born, 43-year-old choreographer bears none of the aggrandized traits associated with Bolshoi-bred celebrities. Wearing gray sweat pants rolled up to the knees and a white T-shirt, his unassuming presence could get lost in a crowd. But when he leans forward in his chair, face slightly flushed, to give directions, ears prick up in the studio.
Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, has been building a canon of Ratmansky’s pieces, including story ballets like his “Nutcracker” and “Bright Stream.” Often, resident choreographers are coaxed to create what a ballet company needs for box-office returns. “I always try to let Alexei do what’s next for him,” McKenzie says.
In choreographic terms, “Firebird” can be as hard to capture and tame as the mythological creature herself. More than a few choreographers have been burned by the score, but Ratmansky has a firm grip on Slavic storytelling using classical ballet vocabulary toward dramatic means. At his best, he summons music, emotion and technique to create illustrious images onstage.
Commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, “The Firebird” was Stravinsky’s first ballet composition, prefiguring “Rite of Spring,” which provoked a riot at its premiere in 1913. The vibrant orchestration and chromatic motifs made the “Firebird” score an instant hit.
Taking its cue from Stravinsky’s composition, the ballet traditionally has been a slightly uneasy mix of dance and theatrical pageantry. (ABT’s 46-minute production uses the complete, uncut score from 1910 for 69 musicians.) The music careers from choreography-friendly rhythms to Debussy-like Impressionism.
Ratmansky is not unaware of the music’s traps but finds “the incredible variety of rhythms” irresistible. The most challenging part of the score, he says, is the “Round Dance of the Princesses,” simply because “it’s too sweet.”
The original “Firebird,” choreographed in 1910 by Michel Fokine for Ballets Russes, seems spare by modern standards. George Balanchine created an unevenly elegant version in 1949 for ballerina Maria Tallchief, with additional choreography added later by Jerome Robbins for the annoyingly cuddly monsters. And Maurice Béjart depicted the Firebird as a revolutionary man in a red unitard who stirs his comrades to action. For any choreographer, the monumental final tableau, in which Stravinsky orchestrally pulls no punches, almost defies mere dancing to accompany it.
Ratmansky’s “Firebird,” requiring a cast of 36 dancers, loosely follows Fokine’s original libretto, based on Russian folk legends. Ivan, a nobleman, enters a mysterious forest and captures a Firebird who gives him a magic feather. He wanders into Kaschei’s territory, discovers the spellbound maidens and falls in love with one of them. Kaschei unleashes his supernatural power, but at the height of danger, the Firebird returns and dances the crowd to distraction until Ivan can grab the secret egg holding Kaschei’s soul and break the spell. Ratmansky uses the maidens, who become Kashchei’s zombied thralls, to replace Kaschei’s monsters, featured in most versions.
Much of Ratmansky’s inspiration comes from the ballerinas dancing the title role: Russian star Natalia Osipova, who possesses an Olympian jumping ability and made headlines in Russia when she defected from the Bolshoi Ballet to banana tycoon Vladimir Kekhman’s Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston, rising soloists in the ABT ranks. Ratmansky likes the quality of experimentation and spontaneity these dancers bring into the studio. “I chose them for their jump, strength and temperament,” he says succinctly.
The ballerinas, nimble and light in the airborne, direction-changing choreography, display their own distinctive traits. “Alexei told me that among Natasha [Osipova], Misty and Isabella, they are all doing what he choreographed, but it looks like three different ballets,” McKenzie says. Boylston, an intensely physical dancer, says she sees the Firebird as “a creature from the wild — she wants to be free — who has these mystical powers.” Copeland, ABT’s sole black ballerina, grew up seeing posters of Dance Theatre of Harlem’s “Firebird” and associates the role with a strong woman: “She’s vulnerable, especially with Ivan, but still fiery and powerful.”
Osipova, who will perform the opening night of “Firebird,” senses the positive-negative duality of the title character. “She supports Ivan’s life,” she says through her interpreter. “But if we are speaking a modern language, she is probably very bitchy. From my point of view, I would like to present the heroine through rich movement. I think it’s possible to represent psychological aspects of the character but to still be a bird.”
For the premiere performance, Ivan will be danced by ABT principal Marcelo Gomes. David Hallberg, who made his own headlines by becoming the first American to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer (but still remains on ABT’s roster), will break from his princely profile to perform the nefarious Kaschei in a long Goth robe.
Stravinsky’s score includes a haunting berceuse, or lullaby, sometimes rendered as an enchanting solo for the Firebird. Instead, Ratmansky uses the excerpt as a pas de quatre for Ivan, Kaschei, the marriageable Maiden and the Firebird. Choreographically, it’s the equivalent of a Verdi quartet in which each singer vocalizes an inner monologue while the collective voices produce lush harmonies. “All four are moving onstage to the slow part of the music and thinking to themselves about what is happening,” Osipova says. “It looks like they are all together, but they are not together. The lullaby is like a magic act.”
Ratmansky chose set designer Simon Pastukh and costumer Galina Solovyeva to design “Firebird.” The set, a medieval-looking forest of five movable trees, piloted by dancers, contrasts with a backdrop of projections reflecting Kaschei’s wild inner consciousness.
Using the Segerstrom Center for the premiere allows ABT to spend precious technical rehearsal days in the theater. The four-performance run is a precursor to its New York premiere in July at the Metropolitan Opera House. For Judy Morr, the Segerstrom Center’s executive vice president and a champion of dance, “a premiere of ‘Firebird’ by Ratmansky was one of my dreams.”
Is there a symbolic parallel between Ratmansky’s choreographic venture and Ivan riskily seizing the Firebird? “The Firebird is a force of nature,” Ratmansky says. “If you are not afraid of it and you find a way to win it over, you’re lucky.”
American Ballet Theatre
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $16 to $115
Information: (714) 556-2787 or https://www.scfta.org