Dance Review: ‘Firebird’ burns bright at Barclay

Michelle Lemburg, as the firebird, flies through a forest of monsters in "Firebird" at Irvine Barclay Theatre.
Michelle Lemburg, as the firebird, flies through a forest of monsters in “Firebird” at Irvine Barclay Theatre.
(Dave Friedman)

Saturday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre began with haunting tunes, puffs of smoke and a giant egg.

If the semi-filled venue contained audience members who took their seats expecting a simple boy-meets-girl story, their expectations were fulfilled — said duo fell in love. But the tale was anything but benign.

“Firebird,” a romantic story ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky, opened in an enchanted forest, its beauty marred by the presence of Kaschei, the ruler of demons and devils, and his sidekicks — ominously dressed in leotards, some red and others purple, with green claws.

The movements, a mixture of classical ballet steps and yoga-type poses, communicated dark emotions and twisted ideas. And even though the dancers’ faces were hidden by costumes, there was no doubt that they portrayed evil.

Prince Ivan, clad in a white shirt and maroon leggings and representative of all things positive, encountered the firebird, radiant in hues of red, orange and yellow. After trying to capture the half-bird, half-girl, during which pirouettes and fouettés abounded, he set her free and, in return, received a magical red plume.

With an apple tree and a wooden chest in the background, the scene then became a playground for a bevy of princesses in white dresses. A gold crown differentiated Ivan’s inamorata, Vasilisa, from her comrades, whose tresses were decorated with flowers.

The choreography, which by turns demonstrated whimsical fun, a burgeoning romance, horror and the face-off between good and bad, is part of Nikolai Kabaniaev’s legacy. The Walnut Creek-based dancer drew inspiration from Michel Fokine and infused the 50-minute show, which Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes premiered in Paris in 1910, with characteristic flair.

After first producing the show in 2010, he spent time in Fountain Valley again this summer, restaging “Firebird,” in which the magical creature frees Ivan from the monsters’ grasp by bewitching and lulling them into an eternal sleep. The fair-natured hero then eliminates the scaly-collared Kastchei’s soul, contained in a fantastical egg.

The performance’s music, which plays as important a role as its leaps, jumps and kicks, ended with a crescendo, synchronized with the firebird in a grand jeté. Viewers got their happily-ever-after at a royal wedding for the prince and princess. And, despite hints of incoordination, a few slips and falling apples, “Firebird” received a thunderous curtain call, with the loudest applause saved for the libertine, whose swagger was on display until the end, and the story’s graceful namesake.

After a brief intermission came the world premiere of “Texture of Time,” which was pieced together by Josie Walsh. The ballerina conceived the steps as she drove from her home in Los Angeles to Orange County, with a notepad between her legs.

The 32-minute, multilayered routine featured innocence, femininity, masculinity, heartbreak, flight and gravity — a pantomime of the effects of time passing by. Original music by Paul Rivera Jr. — a disc jockey known as Jealous Angel, who played electric guitar from a tall stand onstage — ebbed and flowed.

Low-lying fog, haze and sheets of chiffon, sections of which glinted under the spotlights, increased the impact of each powerful movement, be it cycling legs, splits or spins. While performers’ limbs and bodies rotated like hands of a clock, Jim Doyle, who was in charge of “Texture’s” multimedia and scenic design, projected swatches of color and shapes, raindrops and shadows on the back wall.

When sounds of thunder marked the entrance of a storm, he lit up the space to simulate lightning bolts. Dressed in minimalistic, flowing dresses, the company utilized six teenage girls to illustrate childhood and the innocence that comes with it, and six women to embody adulthood, in which personal relationships play a pivotal role, sometimes jading but always changing those involved.

Walsh also depicted a blossoming relationship between two dancers, which ended in heartbreak when the man hurt his partner with actions stemming from fear. The woman suddenly found herself trapped, suffocating in a box — shown by a square-shaped spotlight — which she broke to the accompaniment of the sound of breaking glass, only to be showered by shards created by Doyle.

The lilting performance drew to a close when the billowing sheets rose to the ceiling, revealing the back of the stage — lights, ladders and all. In the end, though, everyone retook control of their inherent childlike wonder, not from a place of naivete, but wisdom and experience.

Eventually shedding their dresses and white shirts — to reveal nude leotards for the women and white pants for the men — the cast slowly walked off stage.

After the elaborate presentation of “Firebird,” “Texture of Time” stripped ballet and human emotions to their bare essence. And it worked.