Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird; photo by Scott Rasmussen
With Firebird, Grand Rapids Ballet’s exquisite season opener, the company shows its extraordinary range, relevance, and reach under James Sofranko’s artistic direction, and that they never been stronger, better, or more beautiful as a company.
Though the program includes a variation of the titular work choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and set to Igor Stravinsky’s first classic composition, there is so much more to this show than this beloved storybook ballet based on a Russian folktale and originally commissioned for the 1910 Paris season of Sergei Diaghiliev’s Ballet Russes with choreography by Michel Fokine.
Thankfully so. For though the dancers’ technique and expressivity is excellent, their storytelling ability is constrained by the limitations of Possokhov’s choreography, and much of the other works in this program better showcase the extraordinary talent of this company. And yet, Yuka Oba-Muschiana’s Firebird is still mystical; Josue Justiz’s Prince and Julia Turner’s Princess are adoring, pained and lovely; and Matthew Wenckowski’s Kaschei is both terrifying and charming.
Their Firebird is still an audience pleaser and an enormous achievement with a huge corps de ballet and that gorgeous score; however, the program might have been better named “Cold Virtues,” after Adam Hougland’s truly stunning dance that originally premiered in 2003 for Louisville Ballet. It is riveting and disturbing, and will haunt the memory of anyone who sees it.
Raw and elemental, this dystopic piece looks like a sepia photograph sprung to life and feels as if it’s from another time yet also familiar. Shot through with masculine energy, seven men and seven women, all lithe, nimble, fierce, and strong, with angular arms and soft shoes, use every ounce of their classical training to create an unforgettable cinematic modern-infused ballet, with pairs Alexandra Meister-Upleger and James Cunningham as well as Emily Reed and Steven Houser at the center.
Set to Philip Glass’s “Glass Violin Concerto” with wild, dark, dramatic strings and costumes by Marion Williams, the dancers make backwards entrances with outstretched arms; they roll on the floor, shimmy, sway, and embrace in pairs; they get dragged across the floor on a diagonal line with 180 degree turnout; they freeze in midair; they move in a circle as if in a folk dance with one dancer at the center; and they otherwise create stunning lifts, extraordinary angles and swirls to heart-racing effect.
Principal dancers Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Matthew Wenckowski are transfixing in Penny Saunders’ sensual pas de deux “Again.” The tension-filled contemporary piece begins and ends with the dancers in deep bows to the audience and with moments in-between that shift from the closeness of full-body contact lifts in attitude to their being apart, with a distance between them that feels bigger than that which we can see. Their performance is elegant and nuanced, particularly as they draw circles on the floor with their toes as well as in the air with their bodies. It is gorgeous.
The opening piece, “Mozart Symphony,” is a wonderful original work by Artistic Director James Sofranko that premiered last June at Grand Rapids’ Festival of the Arts. The classical romantic dance is an ebullient celebration of Mozart’s notoriously joyful music that pays terrific homage to the master for its musicality. Though in an understated way, it takes a nod from George Balanchine and is very reminiscent of New York City Ballet’s heyday with its uplifted pas de deux, pleasing asymmetrical work, and glorification of the feminine yet with very strong male dancers. Lighthearted and at times funny, the five pairs of dancers each carry their own personality and quality, often spritely and impish. Little frog-legged lifts and a move in which a female dancer nestles herself under her partner’s arm into his embrace are but two examples of sweet yet lasting motifs.
Firebird is so much more than its titular piece and truly shows off the best Grand Rapids Ballet has to offer, which is more than can reasonably be expected of a professional regional ballet company. This is a group of dancers whose work is more than ready to be launched on a national if not international stage. And yet West Michigan patrons are among the lucky few who receive the gift of their live performance in the here and now.
Helen Daigle: Staging Cold Virtues for a West Michigan Audience
A Q&A with Grand Rapids Ballet’s Marketing Director, Michael Erickson
Helen Daigle photo by Bailee Columber
Our powerful production of Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird is just a part of of what promises to be an exceptional presentation of dance. The show also includes a world premiere from our resident choreographer, Penny Saunders, entitled Again; Artistic Director James Sofranko’s Mozart Symphony for the first time on the Peter Martin Wege Theatre stage; and Adam Hougland’s Cold Virtues. Adam is the Principle Choreographer for Louisville Ballet and Resident Choreographer for Cincinnati Ballet. He is also Artist in Residence at The Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.
Adam’s a very busy man, to say the least, and was unavailable to come to Grand Rapids until a week before opening night — this is often the case with in-demand choreographers due to previous commitments and grueling schedules. It’s also true that, regardless of their availability, many choreographers don’t restage their own work and often prefer to bring in someone with that specific skill set. That’s where Helen Daigle comes in.
After 20 seasons with Louisville Ballet, Helen retired and transitioned to the Company’s artistic staff as ballet mistress. One of her myriad responsibilities there includes working with other companies to stage productions from its extensive repertoire. And we were lucky to have her spend time in our studios perfecting Adam’s Cold Virtues on our dancers. Let’s learn more about her and her process, shall we?
Q: Welcome to Grand Rapids Ballet, Helen. Tell our readers a little about yourself.
Q: Have you worked with Grand Rapids Ballet before? If not, what are you finding most surprising about the Company and its dancers?
A: I have not had the pleasure of working here before, and it is a pleasure. The dancers are lovely and very quick to take in the material I am throwing at them every day.
Q: So, you’re here staging Cold Virtues for our production, Firebird, opening October 18. Tell us about this rather deliciously dark work – what does it mean to you and what will the audience take away from it? Is there a “story?”
A: This was the first Ballet Adam created new on Louisville Ballet and it truly holds a special place in my heart. It is a somewhat dark work both in lighting and mood and while it does have a narrative, I feel it is more of a journey both for the dancers and audience. Certainly the two featured women are altered by their experiences during the piece, and I think the audience will be, too.
Photo by Bailee Columber
Q: How do you approach the acting component. I mean, it’s one thing to teach steps, but how do you work with the dancers to pull out the emotion?
A: I talk a lot about the energy or intent of a step. Dancers act with their whole bodies so if they feel the intent of each step then the emotion will be imbued in every step they dance.
Q: What’s the best piece of dance advice you’ve received and from whom?
A: John Magnus, with whom I studied at The Joffrey Ballet School, said to me: “Never bring the outside world into ballet, but always take ballet into the outside world.” I took it to mean I had permission to let everything go when I stepped into a studio and only dance and, in turn, I could dance my way through the rest of my life and that was OK, too. It’s a lovely thought, isn’t it?
Q: It really is. We could all benefit from dancing through life a bit more, couldn’t we? Speaking of dancing through life, what’s next for you?
A: Louisville Ballet has a triple bill October 18-19, so I start work with the stager for George Balanchine’s Serenade first thing on Monday.
For even more information on Helen’s time here, listen to her recent appearance with Artistic Director James Sofranko on WGVU Morning Show with Shelley Irwin.
See Helen’s efforts when Cold Virtues runs as part of Firebird October 18-20 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre. For tickets, call 616.454.4771 x10 or visit grballet.com today!
Yuka Oba-Muschiana in Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird; photo by Damion Van Slyke
The Firebird is a magical bird who appears in a number of Russian fairy tales and legends. Even just a feather from her tail is enough to light up a whole room. This magic bird represents the passion and inspiration that is found in many exquisite and unique Russian lacquer works of art and was the inspiration for the Russian tale, The Firebird. The story was the source for one of the most famous folklore ballets composed by Igor Stravinsky under commission from Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. Stravinsky once said that Russian legends have as their heroes men who are “simple, naïve, sometimes even stupid, devoid of all malice, and it is they who are always victorious over characters that are clever, artful, complex, cruel and powerful.”
The ballet centers on the journey of its hero, Prince Ivan. While hunting in the forest, he strays into the magical realm of Koschei the Immortal, whose immortality is preserved by keeping his soul in a magic egg hidden in a casket. Ivan chases and captures the Firebird and is about to kill her; she begs for her life and he spares her. As a token of thanks, she offers him an enchanted feather that he can use to summon her should he be in dire need.
Prince Ivan then meets thirteen princesses who are under the spell of Koschei and falls in love with one of them. The next day, Ivan confronts the magician and eventually they begin quarreling. When Koschei sends his minions after Ivan, he summons the Firebird. She intervenes, bewitching the monsters and making them dance an elaborate, energetic dance (the “Infernal Dance”).
The creatures and Koschei then fall into a deep sleep. While they sleep, the Firebird directs Ivan to a tree stump where the casket with the egg containing Koschei’s soul is hidden. Ivan destroys the egg and with the spell broken, the magical creatures that Koschei held captive are freed and the palace disappears. All of the “real” beings, including the princesses, awaken and with one final hint of the Firebird’s music, celebrate their victory.
The choreographer of our production, Yuri Possokhov, took this tale from his native country and created his own version from among other variations. He changed it to include a love triangle. The Firebird loves Prince Ivan but she realizes that she should allow the Prince to be with the Princess he loves.
See beauty and strength come to life October 18-20 at Peter Martin Wege Theatre. Tickets are available online or by calling 616.454.4771 x10.
Choreography: Yuri Possokhov
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Costume & Scenic Design: Yuri Zhukov
World Premiere: February 28, 2004, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon
Grand Rapids Ballet Premiere: October 18, 2019, Peter Martin Wege Theatre, Grand Rapids, Michigan