This is what happens when a critic doesn’t feel quite ready to pronounce judgment and writes a largely descriptive, diplomatic review: the opinions get supplied for you. Thus the headlines for my Chronicle review of Yuri Possokhov’s new “Firebird” would leave you to think I felt rather upbeat about it, when in fact I left the theater feeling mildly unsatisfied, but wanting to see it once more to confirm this and pinpoint why. The review:

“The good news about Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird” at San Francisco Ballet is that the production really moves, as one pleasantly surprised luminary of the local dance scene enthused while dashing from the Opera House on Thursday.

Possokhov, the company’s principal dancer-turned-choreographer in residence, was born in Ukraine and began his stage career at the Bolshoi. Russian through and through, he folds folk elements into his group dances with native naturalness, and the ensemble moments in this “Firebird” are filled with an exuberance to match Stravinsky’s majestic score.

But the fact that this ballet should be lauded for being merely “dancey” says a lot about “Firebird’s” problematic nature. Beloved musically since the 1910 Ballets Russes premiere, “Firebird” has, in the myriad versions that followed Fokine’s, proved far more memorable as a star vehicle than for its choreographic interest. Ballerinas from Karsavina to Fonteyn to Kirkland have graced it, and the same intractable challenges have remained: The story is both simple and perplexing, difficult to stage with continuity and even more difficult to make emotional sense of. In memory, “Firebird” tends to condense to a glittery bird-woman flitting about, a lot of weird stuff with monsters and a sorcerer, and suddenly everyone’s dancing and happy. The End.

Possokhov’s tack in this staging, expanded from a 2004 production for the much smaller Oregon Ballet Theatre, is to run with all that. This is “Firebird” as a children’s tale, though more cartoon than storybook. Prince Ivan — danced with beautiful form by Tiit Helimets — is a dolt; the princess — sweet-faced Rachel Viselli — is downright goofy. The evil Kaschei (go-for-broke Pascal Molat) is more silly than menacing. The cartoon approach finds its most over-the-top expression in the climactic fight scene, when Ivan gets hold of the magic egg and Kaschei and his horde of monsters chase after him in slow motion — running in place like Wile E. Coyote before he realizes he’s going to fall off a cliff. The opening-night audience ate this up.”

Click here for the full piece.

I did return for a second look last night. I liked it far better then, for reasons of casting: Corps member Lily Rogers made a stunning Firebird, assured and glamorous. Rogers is a tall, fine-boned dancer made more fascinating by paradox: She looks frail but dances fierce. Sarah Van Patten danced the princess, lending the role her singular dramatic skills. One is tempted to say she missed her true calling as an actress–but when you see the unfurling of her legato line, you have to wonder if mere words could supply such a channel for her emotionality. Ruben Martin was the prince, and because he is younger than Tiit Helimets, his naivete seemed more natural than manufactured.

I walked away with a new appreciation for the invention of Possokhov’s ensemble choreography, too. But even with an ideal cast, I am no fan of this “Firebird.” It lacks sophistication. I’m all for comedy in the opera house, especially when it comes with the cutting, naughty edge of, say, Mark Morris–but Possokhov’s “Firebird” lacks an adult knowingness; it comes across like a children’s production. Several colleagues have said this “Firebird” would make a wonderful outreach ballet for elementary students, and I agree. As the marquee attraction for a company of San Francisco Ballet’s caliber, it doesn’t cut it.

Also, the scenery is downright ugly.

There. I said it.

Busy day, must dash—

UPDATE: Helimets is the same age as Martin (see comment below), which I never would have guessed. So Helimets’ princely refinement and Martin’s puppyish sweetness are entirely reflections of their stage personalities, not age–and I apologize for the presumptuousness.


  • Tiit Helimets Posted February 10, 2007 5:39 pm

    Ruben Martin and I are the same age. We were both born in 1977. Thanks for watching.

  • Mike Posted February 14, 2007 7:00 am

    I loved Lily as the Firebird also. It’s a pity that she did not dance it again on Sunday afternoon as she had been scheduled, but was replaced by YYT. It’s a pity because I really felt that she brought more to the role. At least I got to see her debut on Wednesday night… I saw Helgi in passing this weekend and thanked him for giving Lily a shot at it.

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