The Firebird ballet has a long and exciting history ever since it was created by Michael Fokine in 1910 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Since then there have been several versions of The Firebird. George Balanchine’s 1949 version was created for his leading ballerina at the time, Maria Tallchief. Maurice Bejart juggled the imagery by using a revolutionary male figure to play the part of the Firebird, and now, Alexei Ratmansky has come to the fore with his inimitable ability to create something exquisitely original that is simultaneously rooted to tradition.
As American Ballet Theatre’s Artist in Residence, Ratmansky has also created ballets for New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet, the Royal Danish Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and more. His ballets are so distinctive in their intelligence, their originality, their drama, emotion, and musical sensibility that he has undeniably taken the leading position as one of today’s most complete choreographic artist in the classical ballet arena.
Ratmansky is not afraid of complex rhythm, having the depth of perception and a deep organic understanding of movement to be able to navigate and then dive into the most impressionistic of waters. Add to this his ability to tell a story, especially one rooted in Russian folklore, and the marriage between the choreographer and this particular tale becomes ideal.
Using 36 dancers, Ratmansky follows Fokine’s original idea, which is based on a Russian folk legend. The story goes like this: Ivan, a nobleman, finds himself in a forest where he captures a beautiful bird that gives him a magical feather. He then wanders into a strange yet beckoning world where he falls in love with a local maiden. But she, along with her friends, is in the thrall of the dangerous Kaschei who unleashes his supernatural powers to foil Ivan. The Firebird rescues the nobleman by distracting Kaschei’s followers so that he can steal a magical egg that houses the sinister overlord’s soul in order to break the spell he has cast over the land. Ratmansky uses the maidens, who are blind followers of Kaschei, to take the place of the usual monsters that are found in most versions of the ballet.
The choreographer has cast the Firebird according to the need to portray a complete force of nature. Looking for ballerinas with strong temperaments as well as for their high jumps and inner strength, Ratmansky chose the former Bolshoi ballerina Natalia Osipova, as well as two rising ABT soloists, Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston, with each ballerina bringing something different to the stage.
The Firebird made its World Premier at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California at the end of March. Stay tuned for notices on subsequent performances elsewhere around the country.