The American Repertory Ballet’s upcoming premiere of a new version of “Firebird,” on Wednesday, March 12, at McCarter Theater continues a significant year for the central New Jersey professional dance company. It is a year that has also included a premiere of a full-length production of “Romeo and Juliet” and the 50th anniversary production of “The Nutcracker.”
“Firebird” shares a program that includes “Rite of Spring” and “Afternoon of a Faun.” The three works are related. Each was originally created by — and created a sensation for — the innovative early 20th century dance company Ballets Russes (Russian Ballet). That company’s conductor, Igor Stravinsky, also composed the music for “Rite of Spring” and “Firebird.” “Afternoon of a Faun” was composed by Claude Debussy.
Additionally, American Repertory Ballet (ARB) artistic director Douglass Martin is the choreographer for both “Rite of Spring,” which premiered last year, and the new “Firebird.” This version of “Afternoon of a Faun” was choreographed by Kirk Peterson in 1997 for the Hartford Ballet and is making its ARB premiere.
“Firebird” work was one of Stravinsky’s early innovative scores (1910) for Ballets Russes, a company created by flamboyant and daring impresario Serge Diaghilev. The ballet thrilled Parisian audiences and led the way to the composer’s other celebrated ballet compositions: “Petrushka” (1911) and “Rite of Spring” (1913), one of the composer’s most famous works.
Director Martin recognizes that legacy and says, “I am committed to keeping great 20th century works alive by both continuing to perform those great works and by creating new versions with my personal takes on those themes. These Diaghilev-era ballets opened the West to Eastern pageantry and lore. They introduced Western audiences to the artist that would go on to define art in the 20th century. Exploring that history and expounding upon it is essential to the identity and personality of my work.”
While the “Firebird” score and original choreography by Russian dance master Michael Fokine are milestones in the history of world theater, their seeming innovation was more an exotic brew of tones, color, myth, costumes, and vigor: a concoction that strove to meet Diaghilev’s creative dictate: “Astonish me!”
The score reflects Stravinsky’s interest in Russian folk music and his training with famed early 20th century Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who espoused a national style of music and created narrative pieces with tonal constructions to create moods and sections. His symphonic suite “Scheherazade” is one of his best known compositions.
Stravinsky likewise employs musical themes and harmonic devices to suggest light and shadow, good and evil, and defeat and triumph. The extremes are vital for the retelling of a Russian fairy tale where deadly forces press against young life and love and saved by the phoenix-like creature connected with the enduring cycle of life.
On a recent snow-flurried brightened afternoon over two dozen dancers — 13 full company members and about the same number of junior company members — were exploring Martin’s choreography in one of the dance studios at Princeton Ballet School, where the company has its roots.
Martin asks the dancers to resume where they had stopped. Several female dancers gather mid stage in a sculpture-like group, move languidly to the soft pulse and harmonies of the music, and hold and contemplate egg-shaped figures that suggest suspended or waiting life. The tones shift, and shriller sounds evoke alarm and the characters panic. Then in the midst arrives the Firebird, a young man using representational red wings and plumes. His presence represents both a wild life force and a change from the original ballet.
During a rehearsal break Martin talks about the how he decided to change ballet’s original libretto and allow the story to reflect the era that allowed the ballet and score to first appear: a time when modern industrialization was changing and challenging the way people had been living throughout history.
He says his decision to use a male for the traditionally female role of the Firebird was in part to allow the mythic creature to also be used as a type of weapon to fight the negative forces that threatened the lives of the mythic characters.
“Using a male dancer to perform the part of the Firebird allows Martin to emphasize and express different aspects of this mythical creature’s character through the different range and qualities of movement available in the male ballet vocabulary,” Martin says in a written statement.
Another change is to replace the male antagonist, a ruler of a magical land, with a female dancer playing a sorceress.
Martin — who re-envisioned the primitive-themed “Rite of Spring” to be part of the “Mad Men” milieu of the 1960s — says that 100th anniversaries of the Stravinsky pieces was the catalyst for his desire to take on the challenge of creating new versions of these works. “Having performed so many of the great Diaghilev-era ballets in the Joffrey Ballet, I felt like I had an intimate relationship with the original versions of these ballets, and I was eager to explore the music and come up with my own take on them. Getting the style right and polishing it to perfection is definitely the challenge. The Firebird role is artistically demanding and deeply layered,” he says.
To help the work evoke the era further, Martin contracted Elizabeth Nelson to create scenic designs inspired by cubism — an arts movement that had already begun in Paris during the arrival of the Ballets Russes. Her designs will be projected onto a backdrop. Nelson, a Rutgers graduate, has also provided designs for Crossroads Theater, Williamstown Theater Festival, and Sugarcamp Productions based in Manhattan.
Costume designer Michelle Ferranti, who has an MFA from Rutgers, adds “Firebird” to a resume that includes work for numerous dance companies, including San Francisco Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, as well as Marymount Manhattan College. She also provided the costumes for ARB’s “Rite of Spring.”
The principal roles are enlivened by ARB company members Alexander Dutko (Firebird), Samantha Gullace (the evil Sorceress), Stephen Campanella (Prince), and Alice Cao (Princess).
Like its mythic namesake, “Firebird” is proving to be a recurring presence and reappears at McCarter Theater.
Firebird, Rite of Spring, and Afternoon of a Faun, American Repertory Ballet, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Wednesday, March 12, 7:30 p.m. $20 to $50. For tickets, visit www.mccarter.org. For more information, visit www.americanrepertoryballet.org.