Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird revolves around a magical bird that saves the day when the hero cannot do it on his own. A prince meets the princess of his dreams. Unbeknownst to him, he is in an evil sorcerer's forest, which is forbidden to outsiders because the sorcerer is hiding an egg that keeps him immortal. Cornered by the sorcerer, the prince calls on the Firebird for help, which distracts everyone into dancing while the egg is destroyed.
This is a familiar piece of repertory for Carolina Ballet, who last performed its FIREBIRD in 2010, bringing modern touches to the classical style. The current production augments the sizzling main event with two opening performances: a naturalistic ballet set to Brahms' third violin sonata by Choreographer in Residence Zalman Raffael and an experimental piece set to Stravinsky's Symphony in C by Artistic Director Robert Weiss.
Firebird begins by introducing the animals of the forest. The fox's movements, in particular, look realistic, with trotting glissades. Entering with grand jetés, the Firebird, played by Jan Burkhard, is sprightly from the start. Her dancing consists of cleanly unfolding développésinto leg extensions, elegant bird poses and staccato bourrées—small, quick steps en pointe.
Upon being captured by Prince Ivan, there is a pas de deux where the Firebird retains her spark but shows evidence of being restrained. This evokes the paradox between the free spirit of the bird and its captivity. A scene where Ivan falls for Princess Katarina is well acted, clearly displaying the intrigue of her other princess friends.
The climax comes when the evil sorcerer, Katschei, encounters Prince Ivan. Agile and flexible, Katschei stuns with multiple fouetté turns and then back-somersaults into a split before a quick fight scene ensues.
In the blink of an eye, we see the Firebird dancing with the others, the fox destroying the egg in a puff of smoke and the sorcerer dying behind an old-man mask. With so much going on at once, it takes time to understand exactly what has happened. The choreography deftly conceals the process of the sorcerer donning his mask.
Carolina Ballet mostly lives up to its reputation for ornate sets and costumes in Firebird. The final background, which represents a grand Orthodox Christian church, is a highlight.
Used for the wedding scene, this background included a 3D element, with the priest sitting on an attached chair and coming down the stairs. The slide-away Russian artwork illustrating Prince Ivan's encounter with the Firebird covers backdrop changes and cleans up transitions.
To match her dramatic role, the Firebird has a beautiful red costume with feathering details. The princess costumes are disappointing, however, as they look more like nightgowns.
Of course, Stravinsky's music keeps the performance energetic and full of life beyond the physical movement. Firebird leaves the audience wanting more—the brisk climax scene could use some buildup, and seeing more of Oliver Beres' impressive take on Kastchei would be welcome.
But the total package is well worth viewing, and makes for a strong season opening for Carolina Ballet.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Rise again."