Acquiring a work by the globe-trotting star choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has become a defining act for ballet companies the world over. The latest to do so is the Dutch National Ballet, which proudly showed off its latest acquisition in the European première of Ratmansky’s Firebird, originally created for American Ballet Theatre in 2012. Would that they had chosen more wisely.
Galina Solovyeva’s glowing-red and acid-green comic book costumes are impressive and Simon Pastukh’s sci-fi setting of five giant post-industrial trees coupled with Wendall Harrington’s dizzying video projections make for a striking mise en scène. The Holland Symfonia play Stravinsky’s rich score with undeniable brilliance but it is the music that ultimately defeats Ratmansky, its complex sonorities and strong narrative impulse constraining him to follow Mikhail Fokine’s 1910 scenario. But his version pales in comparison, unable to match its enthralling combination of mystery, ritual and magic, and, while containing choreographic nods to the original version, often barely rises above tongue-in-cheek “homage”.
Where Ratmansky departs from the tale, it tends to weaken the narrative: thus the eponymous avian – the indefatigable Anna Tsygankova – is robbed of her uniqueness by being one of a flock of firebirds. Though the choreography is always fluent in a conscious mixture of dance styles, it lacks meaning and focus and is often merely jokey. So the 12 maidens become enchanted zombies, but as the melting melodies of their dances progress, their movements cannot compete, and the joke wears decidedly thin. Again and again, Ratmansky’s choreography flounders and finally sinks beneath the surge of Stravinsky’s invention.
Oberon and Titania fight once more in the revival of Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, which comes up as fresh and engaging as ever. The company relish the challenge of great speed and precision that this ballet demands and fairies skitter pleasingly in David Walker’s familiar Victorian vision of Shakespeare’s supernatural wood. Aya Okumura catches the eye as a pliant Cobweb, an object lesson for her fellow spirits in Ashtonian style, Remi Wörtmeyer is as good a Puck as one could wish for, leaping and darting with evident glee, and Maia Makhateli a characterful Titania, lacking only the ideal farouche quality. The orchestral playing is again a notable feature – Matthew Rowe ensures brisk tempi and a rich sound quality, making this a most welcome revival.