Firebird’s music is alternately mystical and comically rambunctious. Stravinsky shimmers for romance and clangs for adventure. But the score has not inspired the dramatic ballets you might expect. From Fokine on, choreographers have not considered what the characters need from one another. Ivan – your average dolt of a Russian folktale hero – grabs at the Firebird for sport. He falls in love with the captive Maiden because she is there – in the monster Kaschei’s garden, where he has wandered. She is there because Kaschei has captured her. The plot goes round and round.
The genius of Alexei Ratmansky – American Ballet Theatre’s artist in residence, former Bolshoi director – is to turn the lack of dramatic imperative to his advantage. The pathos and delight of his Firebird lies in the fact that this Ivan and Maiden are not destined to fall in love; they decide to.
The ballet begins with Ivan (Marcelo Gomes) seeking romance in Simon Pastukh’s gorgeously disturbing forest of twisted metal trees. Why he thinks a post-industrial waste facility will prove a chick magnet is anyone’s guess, but it does attract firebirds, including stand-out Natalia Osipova. Gomes latches on to her. She surrenders like a bird in a cat’s jaws. She is lively only when pushing against him, cocking her head to get a better look. The pas de deux runs counter to many a ballet seduction, where the woman’s limpness is meant to signify her joy.
Ivan next encounters ladies who have spent so long in Kaschei’s noxious company that they have become monsters too. A cross between mad Miss Havishams and Dr Seuss’s Things, they flop about gawkily, mixing disco moves with other scraps from the dustbin of dance. A single robotic desire drives them – for their insinuating, presumptive king (David Hallberg).
Only Simone Messmer ventures beyond the clump when Gomes beckons. He adapts to the Maiden’s awkward attempts at flirtation by mirroring her clumsy steps. His exertions on her behalf work as a love elixir on him.
Ratmansky eschews classical ballet’s usual forms of virtuosity – the wowing jumps and turns. Of course he does in a dance that is all about finding your way blindly. In a Firebird full of things to love, this refusal to take the steps for granted may be the most endearing of all.