Firebird in Blue: British Choreographer Has His Own Take on the Russian Fairytale

The production by Douglas Lee is the grand finale of the performance honouring the heritage of Leonid Yacobson.

The St. Petersburg Leonid Yacobson Ballet Theatre has recently shared a new premiere: The Firebird, staged by the British choreographer Douglas Lee. This fairy tale from the Russian Seasons, made for export to Paris in 1910 upon Sergei Diaghilev's special request, has received an entirely new incarnation, which has been stripped bare of any and all ethnic flair and is not, by any means, a ballet a la russe any longer.

The young Englishman's production rounds up a three-part show, where the previous two parts are dedicated to Leonid Yacobson's creative work. In preparation for the great ballet innovator's 115th birth anniversary, the St. Petersburg troupe, which owes him its very existence, has restored several of his famous choreographic miniatures. These dance fantasies, inspired by the aesthetic of Romanticism and Classicism, are now performed with a revamped set and scenery. And even several decades later, they have not lost a shred of their charm and refreshing novelty: the Pas de Quatre with music by Bellini enchants with its elaborate choreographic patterns; the Sextet, set to Mozart, delights with the subtle play of light and shadow; and Rossini's Pas de Deux amuses with its mischievous undertones. The Vestris miniature, custom-tailored for Mikhail Baryshnikov back in the day, now reads like an ode to masterful dancing and acting. The current performer, Leonid Khrapunsky, showed admirable skill himself, managing to convey the miniature's ironic and not the least bit idiosyncratic mood.

One of Yacobson's best-known creations is The Wedding Cortège, a grotesque mini-ballet set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich. Its 1975 premiere in Leningrad was banned, but the choreographer took the risk of showing The Cortège while on tour to Moscow, where it, thankfully, received the seal of approval from the Soviet Minister of Culture Pyotr Demichev. Considered outrageously avant garde back then and a classical production today, the ballet has not lost its key source of appeal: succinct and fluid body language, which has a boundless emotional impact.

Staging a ballet that is to be shown on the same night with Leonid Yacobson's greatest masterpieces is a tremendous undertaking for any choreographer. While Douglas Lee is known in Russia for his collaborations with the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre, this is his first time being invited to St. Petersburg. He has offered his own libretto for The Firebird. Some of us may know that Igor Stravinsky already had a strictly outlined libretto at hand when he was working on the score, and was not allowed to stray from the vision of Sergei Diaghilev and Michel Fokine. Today, the situation has been reversed: the choreographer has delved into the score to flesh out the characters and the plot twists, using the orchestration effects and pulsing rhythms as a source of inspiration.

The main strength of this version of The Firebird is not its new interpretation of the story about overcoming the powers of evil, and (unfortunately) not even its original choreography, but the general ambience. Lee, along with the set designer Eva Adler and the lighting designer Sakis Birbilis, turns the stage into an eerie realm where reality and fantasy blend together. The combination of blue curtains (blue is main colour used in the production) with frightening gaps of blackness is not the first background you would have thought of when imagining this story from the Russian folklore. What is does evoke is associations with magic shows, sleight of hand, and carnival sorcery.

Koschei is dressed in a velvet tail coat and a top hat, his minions play around with golden apples — and when these apples suddenly find their way into the dancers' mouths, you can't help but envision crafty fakirs that swallow and spit out flame. Koschei's death is hidden away in a balloon — an object that rarely leaves the side of clowns in a circus arena. The most striking feature that brings the show closer to a carnival performance is a set of portable boxes, shaped much like the props that magicians use to lay down their female assistants and 'saw' them apart. Each of these constructs has built-in lamps, which play their own elaborate rhythm with different colours. And at the end of the show, the stage is showered in glittering golden dust, poured down from the fly gallery.

Varvara Svintsova

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