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Flash Review 2, 11-12: Firebird Flies Again
'Seasons' Shines; Kudelka's New 'Firebird' Needs Scenic Seasoning

By Shena Wilson
Copyright 2000 Shena Wilson

TORONTO -- Standing ovations, flowers, luminaries of the Canadian dance and arts world -- all were present Friday at the Hummingbird Center. And for just cause. This was an evening of a premiere; an evening with contemporary style and traditional roots. James Kudelka gives us both with energy and clarity, in his 1997 "Four Seasons" and his new version of "The Firebird." (The latter is a collaborative initiative, which will also be presented by American Ballet Theatre and Houston Ballet.) "The Firebird, " to the Igor Stravinsky score and with new designs by Santo Loquasto, is mythical and fiery and full of visual beauty, but not my personal choice for "best." It is nonetheless a fine work, and this despite the considerable weight of its triumphant Diaghilev and then Balanchine beginnings, with Marc Chagall no less on designs in 1945.

My favorite of the evening, and now a gem in my all time very favorites list, was the abstract ballet, "The Four Seasons" to the Antonio Vivaldi music with designs by Carmen Ali and Denis Lavoie, of Trac Costume. In French 'le trac' is stage-fright; to have (avoir) le trac is to be petrified to go on stage. Well, no matter the paradox of the name, the costumes were terrific: t-shirts, narrow trousers, suspenders, waist-coats, palazzo pants for some of the women. There was throughout a Great Gatsby, picnic by the river, please-pass-the-Pims, 1920s look that also managed, with subtle changes in hairstyle and details, to be modern and casual enough to look rather 'threshing gang' during autumn and then 'Sunday stroll through a city park' during winter. From vest, to t-shirt, to waist coat, to trench coat we see the four seasons. Muted colors of beige and whites with occasional green against a sky that changed color, according to, um, you guessed it, the season. Simple, effective, but not as predictable as you'd think.

Let's cut to the chase, shall we? I loved it. I was enthralled from start to finish. In order, our principal women of season are: Guest artist Evelyn Hart, spring; Greta Hodgkinson, summer; Martine Lamy, autumn; and Victoria Bertram, winter. Each of these key women of season are joined frequently by two other primary dancers, and occasionally by four to eight additional dancers, our corps of the season. This "format" is followed throughout, giving easy transition to solos, pas de deux, and larger ensembles. Mr. Harrington lives the central role, linking the seasons; he is the thread. He is the life that follows, the Spring of youth to the Winter of death. He gives of himself generously, reminds me continuously why he is so remarkable, and manages to look like a real person in the process. We care about him.

Bare stage. Mr. Harrington is alone, waiting for us. He stands still, arms low, torso turned to us. The seasons begin.

Spring: light, bright, swinging legs, and long arms. To her enormous credit, when necessary Ms. Hart blended seamlessly with the other dancers, Rebekah Rimsay and Jean Salas in particular. While alone Ms. Hart was her eternally solid self, she gave characteristic intensity to every movement. As far as I could tell, this was the most pure dance portion of the four, as opposed to being movement attached to a story. It's Spring, things are growing, elegant; it is all fresh and good.

Summer: Ms. Hodgkinson against a bright red sky. Oh, amazing control. Slow and languishing, sultry she dances with Mr. Harrington. This is the love story, the sexy season of summer. Together they move with passion, without going over the top, and are smooth and syrupy like a summer day. Red sky turns to tree branches. A quirk in the up-til-now clean choreography, summer fun, they 'do the twist.'

Autumn: Ms. Lamy is joined by Andrea Burridge and Xiao Nan Yu, and by Christopher Body and Richard Landry, who are fabulous. Ms. Lamy, wearing gauzy, dark green wide-legged pants, appears to be magically guided by magnets. Weightless, graceful, and very strong. This is what Autumn is about: dependable, fun, full of nourishment. Besides technical precision, 'ballon' and great charisma, it occurs to me that Ms. Lamy is a dancer who truly loves to dance. She is joined by Mr. Body and Mr. Landry in trios that are full and smooth, and then by an ensemble that with feet stamps and bent elbows and bows that slip through what is a sort of reel; there's an echo of a barn dance. Hey! this is the "threshing-gang." They have completed the harvest. It's been a good year.

Winter: At first, it's a witty winter; then things get quite grim. Trench coats swirl. There are a couple of things happening here. First, and quite delightfully, Mr. Harrington, chilled and introspective, hands holding collar, is joined by his exuberant sidekick, Jeremy Ransom, who wants to tell him a secret. Scuffle. Get lost. Tries again, and again. Shove. 'Hey, I want to tell you this!' And on we go quite wonderfully until a tap on the shoulder is the last straw.á And shove! They swing into leaps and a dance that whips through the steady unsung dialogue of friendship. Our man of all seasons is becoming tormented; his friend does not succeed in changing this. Enter our wintry people, the quiet strength of the 'old-guard', shall we say. And we "do" winter with the well-seasoned: Tomas Schramek and Hazaros Surmeyan, who join our elegant turban-clad lady of winter, Ms. Bertram. Clothed for a stroll in the park, with hats, spats and suspenders, they join the man in a quasi soft-shoe swirl. However, our man of all seasons is irreparably tormented, he's slipping gently and surely into angst against a white bleak sky. Legs twitch, hands move uncontrolled to his chest, he tries, he is not comfortable.

Eventually, after a beautiful pas de deux, Ms Bertram brings him to what seems, euphemistically, to be a peaceful slumber, center stage, reclining, la pieta style. It's the end, of him, of winter, of "The Four Seasons." We miss him already. We applaud madly. We all stand. He bows, lines up for our applause with the seasons and the colleagues, gives Ms Lamy a kiss on the hand. This ballet is Rex Harrington's prime chance to project his charm, to level his dark gaze at us, to fully employ his considerable emotional depth, and certainly to show us his artistry and physical capabilities. There was not a single wisp of movement that did not speak to me, personally. A man of all seasons, indeed.

Greta Hodgkinson in Santo Loquasto's costume for James Kudelka's "The Firebird." John Lauener photos courtesy National Ballet of Canada.

To jettison yourself into the picture-book world of "The Firebird," think Nijinsky-esque prince in an ancient Mayan magical place, full of trees that bear golden apples. A place where a deathless lizard lives with his intensely colorful cortege of slimy and floating beings and where an exquisite firebird enables a personal journey to a happy ending of love. We are in the bell-jar world of full-blown classical tales of truth, death, love, life, the triumph of good over evil. This is Aesop's fables sipping absinthe. Things with tales and scales. More things with feathers. And colors!

Now, the dancing. Let's start with our red-feathered Firebird of the evening, Ms. Hodgkinson. She makes it all look so damn easy as she sails with surgical precision through this very demanding role. Even the most deceptively simple moment, such as standing still in fifth on pointe, is remarkable. Somehow, Ms Hodgkinson is absolutely still. Perfectly, photo-op, still. There is not even the usual, 'I am not moving, but already preparing for my next step.' There is not a whisper of motion. I would have liked to see more of The Firebird. The focus of the ballet is Prince Ivan, Aleksandar Antonijevic. Handsome, slavic, and technically dazzling, Mr. Antonijevic offers an air of pliable dignity, a willingness to delve into the circumstances, that thankfully, he carries through the whole ballet.

In a nutshell, here is what we're dealing with: our prince is taking a walk in the leafy forest, bow in hand. He sees the Firebird. She goes often to this grove to eat her favorite golden apples that fill her with joy. The prince wants to capture her. But she's a firebird. This takes a while. He eventually catches her by the tail, she cries diamonds, he lets her go. This was a good move; you'll see. Princess Vasilisa, the one the prince is destined to marry for some reason or other, appears in the grove with her friends, the other princesses, all of whom are under Katchei the Deathless's spell. He is bad. He has long red fingers and creepy lizard-like eyes. He is called deathless because his death, a separate entity, a thing, is elsewhere, kept in a secret place.

Back to the lovely princesses. They are beautifully costumed in white with waist-length sparkling black hair and small hats, and they are in search of the golden apple grove, where they play with the apples delightedly. Their costumes are elegant, maiden-ish, willowy, oriental, and yet suitably Aztec: it's something you'd wear to your local opium den, where they also serve matte. Ivan falls in love with Vasilisa. The sun rises, Vasilisa and friends disappear because (of course!) they are enchanted creatures. Ivan risks life and long muscular (sigh...) limb to follow his love into the realm of Katchei, where this evil ruler will (of course!) try turn him to stone.

This passage was the strangest to me as far as choreography goes. William Marrie, strong, staring, scary and smooth was indeed everything he could be while Deathless. But too often and predictably for me: clawed hands stretched to the surge of the music. It was treading dangerously into musical comedy land. It was saying, I am scary, but of all the technical bravado I was not convinced. Oh, sure, 'boo' to you too Mr. Deathless. Perhaps this due to movements like an awkward lizardish front-walkover? (What?)

The princesses try to save Ivan from being turned to stone. It is touch-and-go. Then the Firebird appears and leads the whole group in a frenetic and ultimately exhausting dance. This, by the way, is the very best passage as far as the dancing and pure spectacle is concerned. Beautiful, soaring energy! As well as unpredictable: True wondrous Kudelka movement. Ah! It would have been fabulous to see more. And now we enter the really murky depths of magical mythical fantasy where birds can look into the dreams of lizard-creaturesá. Yes, while the whole group of colorful beings slumber, the Firebird sees into the vivid dream of the Deathless and thus discovers where his 'death' is hidden. She leads the Prince to the object, kept, oddly, in an large egg, often a symbol of lifeá. When they all wake, the Prince and Katchei struggle, and the 'death' is released from the big egg. The bad lizard is scooped, with a surprisingly cheesy pulsating red light, into the gaping egg. Boom. No more of the deathless one. Wedding. Joy. Thanks to the Firebird. Firebird leaves. Fade to black. Au revoir.

This is a spectacle lover's ballet. It is like walking through the pages of a children's picture book, preferably while on your favorite hallucinogen. It is captivating and sumptuous, the dancers exquisite and technically excellent. And the costumes. Oh wow. Where I had a bit of a problem was with the set. And I say this with reservation because it was quite lucious.

I think it's about the two large stair cases. Besides the hushed squish of the hydraulics as they were moved by the usual troll-lizards that move staircases in magical kingdoms, I found myself wondering if the relative precariousness of the set was equal to it's true and useful effect. Oh my God, will they make it up the stairs to the platform?

Of course there was no reason to think that the dancers had any problem with this set; it was well navigated, and even under-utilized by some of the kingdom beings that lurked beneath it. Isn't it more fun to leap off the fourth step into the wings than to step over it and kinda get around it to the next cue? The Firebird enters first on a long platform that covers the entire width of the stage, high above the second smaller platform at the top of the stairs. She is flying: this is effective. But then she has to get down off the thing, rush through the wings and re-appear downstage right. Tada! Also, if the golden stairs are in a magic kingdom I don't want to be reminded of those fold-back gymnasium risers through which you can accidentally drop a scarf into the mud or dust below, never to be seen again until the end of rugby season. In such totally sumptuous dreamy surroundings, couldn't we have some strands of golden-yak fleece dangling into the spaces between steps which will still allow the dancers to see reasonably well from underneath? I would have liked to say: Oh my! There are more creatures! Instead of: Hey, there's someone under there! Will they come out soon?

Both ballets earned loud applause, shouts of Bravo and lengthy standing ovations. A man in the first rows offered a large bouquet of roses with a hearty toss onto the stage. Mr. Antonijevic, still princely and smiling, retrieved the flowers from the edge of the stage and presented them with an appreciative, congratulatory bow to Mr. Kudelka. Given the chance, even though he would probably call the cops, I would have gladly done the same myself. And hey, perhaps Mr. Kudelka would like to know that the Vivaldi 'Seasons' was the music of my first role on pointe: a benevolent melting icicle fairy to that "plucky part" in Winter....

But seriously folks, "The Four Seasons" is truly glorious: a perfect reason to watch dance. And this new "Firebird" does not lack a certain personality, and a cool sense of humor. After all, we do find "An Old Reptile" and "An Older Beast" in the cast list.

"The Four Seasons" and "The Firebird" continue tonight and November 21-23 at the Hummingbird Center. For more information, please visit National Ballet of Canada's web site.

P.S. In the crowd of 3,000 I happened to notice National Ballet legends Karen Kain and Frank Augustyn standing near their seats before the performance. While these old friends chatted, smiled, and nodded, I watched them for a moment, my childhood awe oozing. Momentarily the rest of the crowded room disappeared as Ms. Kain, beautiful as ever, raised a slender hand congenially, ever so gently, to brush something away from Mr. Augustyn's cheek. My lovely cohort ASW, former National ballet school 'rat' herself, whispers hushed "Hey, that's them...." Yes.

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