The Firebird

Dance Europe 1 Apr 2003English

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The curtain rises over a scenery of myriads of little white and blue balls. Suspended from the ceiling, they frame a little island of silver trees at the back of the big stage of Staatstheater Mainz. In the wings figures and faces appear like dots amongst dots, spying on prince Iwan’s encounters with the firebird and princess Zarewna, who is later ridiculed by six jealous, silly and spiteful princesses. Thomas Ziegler’s beautifully impressionistic set for Strawinskijs “The Firebrid” is a perfect mixture of simplicity and clarity on the one side and magic on the other – a description that also holds true for Martin Schläpfer’s choreography for Ballett Mainz. It is Schläpfer’s first real encounter with a narrative ballet. The result is hugely satisfying.

“The Firebird” is part of “Programm XI” of Ballett Mainz, the other two pieces of the evening being Hans van Manen’s “Concertante” (1994) and “Andante” (1991). They make ample proof that the company is in fabulous shape executing Van Manen’s tense crystal clear movements with technical skill and emotional warmth. Ingrid Lupescu and Bogdan Nicula as the courting couple in “Andante” make their sexual encounter look as funnily incidental as if they were brushing off bread crumbs from their lapels.

For “The Firebird”, Martin Schläpfer has made some significant changes in Michail Fokin’s original libretto to convey his vision of the fight between good and evil. While his alterations take away some of the fairy tale elements of the story, they do not destroy the magical atmosphere that the piece requires. Gone is the cosmic egg that contains Kastschei’s power and that Iwan Zarewitsch finds with the help of the firebird. As a consequence, Iwan is relegated to the fringe of the stage where he ducks with princess Zarewna watching Kastschei and the firebird itself fight for world domination.

Schläpfer has decided to cast both characters with women, thus avoiding polar opposites that would already be visible in the gender of the dancers. In fact, Marlucia do Amaral as the firebird and Yuko Kato as Kastschei look like mirror images of each other. Although Amaral’s movements appear more agile with her legs criss-crossing and her head tilting while Koto exudes more of an aloof and icy grandeur, the two women could be sisters. When they face each other, one wearing a glittering red, the other a glittering grey costume, moving on pointe with small fluttering arm movements, one cannot tell who is superior. After all, they are two ballerinas at the height of their immense technical prowess. Igor Mamonov is a reliable prince with much strength and skill in lifting, shouldering and wrapping his partners around his body. Kirsty Ross as the princess is as sweet as she is high flung and open when meeting the prince.

After Kastschei has been defeated, the spell breaks and the glorious scenery is lifted to the ceiling leaving the island of silver trees alone on stage. Dressed in orange suits, the company make their way through the trunks leaving behind a scenenary that uncannily resembles the World Trade Center after its destruction. While fireworks rain down on stage, the company simply stands there facing the audience suspending the dance and any hopes that might be attechad to its beauty. Although Kirsty Ross now twirls Igor Mamonov around, this curtailed apotheosis makes the piece end on an open note.

There are, however, some minor flaws in the production. Kastschei’s guards (Nick Hobbs and Jörg Weinöhl) are too perversely and ostentatously vicious when tormenting princess Zarewna, and the guards’ primitive heavy stomping movements, reminiscent of Nijinsky’s choreography for “Le Sacre du printemps”, could do with a bit more visual clarity to really affect us. But these are negligible quibs that cannot conceal the fact that “The Firebird” is Martin Schläpfer’s best piece to date. Supported by a narrative structure Schläpfer succeeds in keeping a tight reign on his emotions that in former pieces threatened to undermine the form of his choreographies. With “The Firebird” Martin Schläpfer has come one step closer to choreographic maturity.