BWW Reviews: ARB at McCarter Theatre - A Perfect Showcase
It's been a long, drowsy winter--though if you're a dance buff, the American Repertory Ballet has put together the perfect showcase to jolt you out of hibernation. Starting with the magnificent melodrama Firebird, and following up with the warm-season works Afternoon of a Faun and Rite of Spring, the troupe took the stage at Princeton's McCarter Theatre just this past week. The program was a celebration of dance both new and old--the world premiere of Douglas Martin's Firebird choreography, no less--a revisitation of the balletic past that was taut, nimble, and modern in about the right measure.
Naturally, Martin's Firebird headlined the ARB's offerings. Set to the music of Igor Stravinsky, this short ballet is a fairly clean-cut story of good and evil. Our hero is Prince Ivan (Stephen Campanella), who is aided by the Sapphire Princess (Alice Cao) and the mystical Firebird (Alexander Dutko) in his attempts to vanquish the nefarious Immortal (Samantha Gullace). No major ambiguities, though the ARB production does have a few gratifyingly unexpected features. These welcome idiosyncrasies start with scenic designer Elizabeth Nelson's cubistic backdrops and extend to the dynamic between Campanella and Dutko, which evolves from distance and trepidation to something like camaraderie by the final, triumphant tableau.
Martin has disciplined this material into remarkably good shape, though he's sacrificed a few of the ballet's more intriguing possibilities in order to do so. While Dutko makes a fine and serious male Firebird, I wouldn't have minded a female dancer in the role; the Ivan-Sapphire relationship will always be too chaste to be interesting, but an Ivan-Firebird duet can have a much-appreciated sexual spark. And starting the production by introducing the Immortal and her minions, only to trot them out again at the climax, defeats too many elements of surprise. (For all its many flaws,the old Marc Chagall Firebird still wows its audience by saving its array of villains for the very end.) Yet repetitions like these are also invaluable in tightening up the narrative. In other productions I have seen, the ballet plays like a revised, abridged, brightened-up and tamped-down version of Swan Lake, and Martin has succeeded in giving Firebird some of the unity and integrity of a well-turned myth.