Left - Artists of the Australian Ballet in Firebird. Photo - Alex Makayev
Firebird and Other Legends continues the Australian Ballet’s Ballet Russes celebrations with a diverse triple bill. While the three works – Les Sylphides, Petrouchka and Firebird are stylistically and visually different, they are united in their historical context. All three works were presented by Diaghilev in his early Paris seasons and were created within three years of each other. They also all toured to Australia by Colonel De Basil’s Ballet Russes in 1936. Mikhail Fokine is the key choreographer in this program – Les Sylphides and Petrouchka stay true to his choreographic vision. Firebird is the wild card here – it’s a new version of the ballet created by one of the AB’s favourite choreographers – Graeme Murphy.
The program feels like it flows in chronological order as it opens with the long, white tutu-ed Les Sylphides. Described as a one-act plotless ballet, a “meditation on beauty,” a bevy of beautiful ballerinas frames a single man (Yosvani Ramos). It’s a work of grand tableau and delicate ensemble work that pays homage to the romantic ballet era. The corps de ballet work successfully conveys the ephemeral lightness and grace of the female figures in its linear and circular patterning.
On the other end of the spectrum, Petrouchka is a narrative, four-scene ballet about a clown puppet with a human spirit. Alexandre Benois’s colourful sets (on loan from the Birmingham Royal Ballet) evoke all the detail and bustle of a Russian marketplace and the ensemble-heavy village and fair scenes have all the energy of a large scale ballet. The main characters are animated dolls - Petrouchka (a Punch figure), a hulking Moor and a wooden Ballerina. Most engaging is Marc Cassidy as Petrouchka who captures both the sadness and the spirit of the leading role with his rag doll posturing and longing face.
For its time Petrouchka was groundbreaking, and today this lively production, with its energetic ensemble work and celebratory revelry mixed with darker emotion, still appeals to audiences. It doesn’t have the timeless look of Les Sylphides – it is grounded in a particular era and place, but it is a work that lasts the distance.
Firebird is not only the new work in this triple bill, it’s the big draw card. Graeme Murphy’s re-workings of Swan Lake and Nutcracker are some of the most popular works in the AB repertoire. It’s too early to tell if Firebird will rise to the same status, but it’s definitely an imposing and interesting work. Murphy has collaborated with creative associate Janet Vernon and set and costume designer Leon Krasenstein to create an otherworldly environment symbolizing birth and death, good and evil, youth and aging. The setting is a cold, dark place ruled by the evil Kostchei (Paul Knobloch) – a Garden of Eden gone awry and filled with large cracked eggshells harbouring enslaved creatures. From its knotted apple tree cage to its serpentine references, Firebird is laden with familiar imagery writ large. Out of this, the dazzling Firebird (Lucinda Dunn) emerges and dazzles Ivan Tsarevich (Adam Bull) who wants to capture her. It’s a complex work that is both abstract and literal, classical and neo-classical, balletic and contemporary. Not everything about it stylistically gels, but Dunn is magnificent as the Firebird – beautiful and light with strong attack. Her pas de deux pairing with Bull is sometimes awkward, but the work as a whole, is strongly danced, especially by Amber Scott as Tsarevna and the ensemble of captured souls.
Through The Australian Ballet’s Ballet Russes celebrations over the past four years, ballet audiences have been exposed to choreographers like Fokine, Massine and Nijinsky in a selection of recreations, reinventions and reinterpretations. These works are just a small sampling from a rich time period in modern ballet’s evolution and an important step towards preserving and invigorating dance history.
The Australian Ballet presents
Firebird and Other Legends
Venue: the Arts Centre, State Theatre
Dates: 12 March – 24 March
Tickets: $31 - $120. Proof of concession may be required
Bookings: australianballet.com.au or Ticketmaster 1300 136 166
Venue: Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 2 - 22 April
Bookings: australianballet.com.au or 1300 369 741