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Within RNZB’s Dystopian ‘The Firebird’ Ballet lies a Cautionary Tale

by Steve Sucato
August 30, 2021
Digital Stage Production
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.
Like a Greta Thunberg nightmare future come to life, Royal New Zealand Ballet choreographer-in-residence Loughlan Prior’s new production of The Firebird for the company, depicts a future where humans have destroyed the earth’s environment to the point of reducing the species to Mad Max-like movie characters that roam a barren planet where water is the most precious resource.

This ballet joins RNZB alumni choreographer Andrea Schermoly’s recent pandemic inspired The Rite of Spring for Louisville Ballet, in re-envisioning a Ballet Russes classic to be set in a dystopian hellscape. Prior, however, manages to retain the feel of choreographer Michel Fokine and the Ballet Russes’s 1910 The Firebird production within his new storyline and setting.

Set to Igor Stravinsky’s dramatic original score for the 1910 ballet, RNZB’s 46-minute multimedia The Firebird, is as much movie as it is filmed stage production. Shot with six cameras, it puts the viewer onstage at times in close-ups with the dancers and is infused with fiery visual effects.

The digital stage production opened on a group of scavengers marching through a dark desolate wasteland, bodies covered to repel a raging sandstorm. As the last of their water is passed around from a canteen, a member of the group, Arrow, succumbs to thirst and the elements and falls to the ground and is left behind. Just when Arrow, danced by National Ballet of Canada principal guest artist Harrison James, is about to perish, a Firebird (soloist Ana Gallardo Lobaina) appears to him in a burst of sparking visual effects. Seeing his plight, she magically conjures up a pool of water for him to drink from.

Lobaina, the only dancer on pointe in the ballet, is in traditional Firebird ballet costume and Prior’s choreography for her is in the classical vein whereas the bulk of the ballet uses a contemporary movement style. She and James then engage in the first of two bravura pas de deux in the ballet as their characters celebrate the joy of discovering one another. The dreamy pas de deux moves with an ease and lightness belying the dark and foreboding world that surrounds them. Lobaina is a flexible dancer that James twists and turns in a series of daring lifts in their engaging pas de deux.

After the Firebird gives Arrow a feather of hers for him to use to conjure up water, the other scavengers return for him. In seeing the Firebird, the others try to capture her. Arrow fends them off and helps her to escape.

The scene then switches to the scavengers’ settlement, an old ship run aground, where a fight breaks out over a stolen canteen of water. Visually, the fight scene was a chaotic mishmash of dancer bodies colliding in dizzying close-up shots that while effective in driving home the desperate situation those characters are in, it afforded little in the way of substantive dancing. The group’s de facto leader Neve (principal dancer Sara Garbowski) then broke up the fight just as Arrow and his scavenger party returned.

After Arrow reveals to the settlement the magical feather and he creates a pool of water for all to drink from, Arrow and Neve melt into a heartfelt contemporary ballet pas de deux. The lovers move through swirling turns, into deep embraces and soaring lifts. James and Garbowski’s dancing in it was radiant.

Enter the baddie. Prior’s answer to Fokine’s Koschei the Immortal, was the character of The Burnt Mask, leader of rival tribe the Wastelanders. Performed by principal dancer Paul Matthews in full desert regalia that covered him (except his eyes) head to toe in fabric and wielding a crude scythe, he and his small band of henchpeople, who appeared to be the only ones with weapons, proceeded to terrorize the scavengers. It was also revealed during the melee that scavenger Elizaveta, portrayed by soloist Kirby Selchow, was a Wastelander spy and The Burnt Mask’s lover. Salchow was deliciously wicked in the role took pleasure in roughing up her fellow settlement dwellers. She tells Mr. Mask of Arrow’s magical feather, which he dismisses as he has captured the Firebird and his henchman drag her center stage chained by her wrists.

From there the ballet plays out rather predictably with Arrow, Neve and the scavengers trying to free the Firebird without success. All the while, a look of hatred built on Lobaina’s face, and her eyes grew bigger as she lashed out at the Wastelanders. With her ability to believably switch emotional states in an instant and her skilled dancing, Lobaina’s performance as the Firebird is the finest I have seen in that role.

The ballet came to its end when the threat of The Burnt Mask impaling a helpless Arrow caused the Firebird to engulf him and his followers in flames. She, then collapsing in Arrow’s arms, bursts into flames and from her ashes blooms a fertile new planet and she is reborn.

A unique Firebird production with excellent performances by the entire cast as well as effective set, costume, special effects and lighting design, Prior’s The Firebird for RNZB has the potential for mass appeal. If there is one knock on the ballet, it is that the corps de ballet, apart from a few instances, is reduced to being set dressing. A meaty group dance for the scavengers felt needed.

As a cautionary tale of our effects on the planet’s environment and what that might lead to in future, one thing glaringly stands out, we won’t have a magical Firebird to save us. We have to do that ourselves, and now.

Royal New Zealand Ballet’s digital stage production of The Firebird is available for paid viewing through September 6. Visit https://rnzb.org.nz/shows/the-firebird-live-in-your-living-room/
'The Firebird', by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, July 2021. Ana Gallardo Lobaina and dancers.

"The Firebird", by the Royal New Zealand Ballet, July 2021. Ana Gallardo Lobaina and dancers.

Photo © & courtesy of Stephen A'Court

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