What Makes the Firebird Sing: At ABT, Alexei Ratmansky’s Action-Packed Version Has Energetic Bird, Engaging Maiden

But Graeme Murphy’s 'Swan Lake' is dead in the water

Natalia Osipova in Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Firebird.”

This last week brought us, by coincidence, new versions—new concepts—of two of the canon’s most famous ballets: The Firebird and Swan Lake. One was wonderful, the other unwonderful. So it goes.

Alexei Ratmansky is generally considered today’s most talented classical choreographer. Within the last weeks we’ve seen his moving Russian Seasons at City Ballet and his entrancing The Bright Stream at ABT. His new work is everywhere—Paris, Toronto, Amsterdam, Miami, as well as New York. And what he does is extremely various. All you can be sure of with him is unremitting invention, garnished by respect and generosity to his dancers—they’re constantly being stretched but never being pushed.

Now he’s stretched Firebird—and maybe pushed it a little, too. When in 1910 Diaghilev introduced it to Paris, it was a sensation: Fokine’s exciting choreography, Karsavina’s brilliant performance, and most of all, Stravinsky’s thrilling score. (It was his first ballet.) That version, more or less undiluted, is still performed in England, where it was revitalized when the title role was assumed by Margot Fonteyn, coached by Karsavina herself. Her performance was fierce, dazzling, moving—escaping the young Prince, Ivan, was a matter of life and death to her; somehow she combined flashing speed and attack with an inner humanity. Meanwhile, in 1949 the success of City Ballet was assured when Balanchine created his own Firebird for Maria Tallchief, with her revelatory demonstration of dance amplitude and power.

Ratmansky has turned his back on the Firebird’s humanity and individuality, her complicated mix of dominance and sympathy. He gives us a quick, darting creature in skin-tight fire-engine red, and she’s only one of 17 such creatures—there’s nothing to distinguish her from the rest of the flock except that she takes center stage. If you’re one of 17 birds, there’s not much humanity left to you. First-cast Natalia Osipova, she of the famous jump, surged back and forth across the stage, always in command; even when in Ivan’s grip she was in charge, as if she were toying with him rather than trapped by him. Osipova was totally effective, but she wasn’t really challenged as a dancer.

Her Ivan was the naïve yet manly Marcelo Gomes, as always completely invested in his role; you’re rooting for him from the start when you see him bursting out through a door in a bare room (a nod to Petrouchka) to search the forest for his lost love. When he finds her—in a bunchy green get-up—she, like the Firebird, is indistinguishable from her companions, except for the wit and intelligence that Simone Messmer brings to the role. (It’s been clear for some time that Messmer is one of the most interesting women at ABT. Who else could have looked so right a few seasons ago not only as one of Twyla Tharp’s Baker’s Dozen but as Giselle’s Myrthe as well?)

Ratmansky and Messmer liberate the Maiden from her usual bland persona, making her one of the two most engaging characters on the stage, the other being David Hallberg as the evil sorcerer Kaschei (a role performed in their dancing days by both Balanchine and Ashton). Hallberg’s Kaschei is both a menace and a hoot. He’s got up in glittery black, with emerald-green touches—his headdress, his gloves—looking a little like an Action Comics villain: The Green Spike. But there’s nothing comical about the way he controls and abuses the ensorcelled girls. When he’s overthrown by the Firebird, we’re both happy to see him defeated and sad to see him go.

Given the oddity of certain of Ratmansky’s choices, what makes this Firebird so joyous, so gratifying? As always in his work, there’s endlessly ingenious contrivance. Who else today deploys groups of dancers so clearly and tellingly? There are magical forest sets (by Simon Pastukh)—sometimes grotesque, sometimes beautiful. There are powerful and judiciously handled projections. The just-Russian-enough costumes (by Galina Solovyeva) are appealing. But most crucial is the way the action plunges propulsively ahead, with the struggle between good and evil hanging in the balance, until at the end the Firebird prevails, the girls emerge from their captivity with long golden tresses and long white dresses, and in a coup de théâtre, the captive boys are freed from the gnarled trees that have confined them. Stravinsky’s glorious climax ignites in Ratmansky a stirring affirmation of humanity and a vision of happiness restored.

How to describe the Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake? (Sorry: Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake, as it’s modestly named.) Here’s the idea. We’re at some Edwardian resort where Prince Siegfried, who’s in love with his mistress, Baroness von Rothbart, has just been married off to a somewhat unstable ingénue named Odette. Everyone is horrible to her, for no discernible reason, and she takes it amiss when her bridegroom brutally ignores her for the Baroness—in fact, she lashes out, breaks down, and the Royals bundle her off to a sanatorium where we watch her receiving hydrotherapy. (Is this a first?) At this point, something like an hour has passed, and no swans.

But Odette has a dream or vision in which she’s at a frozen lake (a huge round tilted disk) with plenty of sympathizing swans swanning around her. Siegfried turns up, but things don’t work out. Back in the sanatorium she’s further oppressed by him and the Baroness until somehow she gets away, apparently cured, and in a svelte white evening dress crashes the Baroness’s ball. (It’s a reverse of the traditional Swan Lake, in which it’s the wicked Odile who crashes the ball. Clever, huh?) The two women are locked in a contest for the feckless and characterless Siegfried. Odette apparently prevails—yet, as we’re closing in on three hours, we’re back at the lake and she opts to disappear forever into its dark waters.

All this is carefully worked out, with lots of subsidiary characters whose identity is clarified only in the program notes. The dance vocabulary is vulgarized and distorted classical, but you can say for Graeme Murphy that he knows what he’s vulgarizing. (Does that make it better or worse?) This work has been a hit for the Australian Ballet since its premiere 10 years ago, and has been a calling card for them ever since—undoubtedly because of the pointed echo of the Charles-Di-Camilla debacle. Another tasteful touch.

What Makes the Firebird Sing: At ABT, Alexei Ratmansky’s Action-Packed Version Has Energetic Bird, Engaging Maiden