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Review: Oregon Ballet Theatre’s ‘Firebird’ takes flight

Yuri Possokhov’s highly acclaimed rendition of the Russian folktale was accompanied by "Indigo," Stanton Welch’s one-act contemporary octet, and the world premiere of "Eco" by Paul Taylor Company resident choreographer, Lauren Lovette.

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Michael Linsmeier as Kaschei in Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird.” Photo by Yi Yin.

Oregon Ballet Theatre presented its spring rendition of Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird at the Newmark Theatre, April 7-15, alongside two contemporary ballets: Indigo by Stanton Welch and Eco by Lauren Lovette.

After a few friendly words from OBT’s recently appointed artistic director and former Royal Australian Ballet and Nederlands Dance Theatre dancer, Dani Rowe, the evening began with Indigo. Choreographed by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch, the work has actually been considered unseemly or scandalous by some critics when performed in its home state of Texas. The ballet, which seemed to depict pairs of matching couples all donning indigo, was anything but that.

Brian Simcoe, Michael Linsmeier, and Bailey Shaw in Stanton Welch’s “Indigo.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

The contemporary work, which in many moments felt akin to some classical modern dance, started off with a struggle as one of the male dancers misstepped in attempting a shoulder lift with his partner, leaving her muscling to stay afloat. After the dismount of this worried moment, however, the dance began to take shape. With small, cautious steps, the eight performers moved quickly in partially executed unison, winding around each other in spherical chemistry. The choreography of Indigo was sharp, flitting, choppy, and had a satisfying Horton-esque quality to it, containing many daring lifts, some even appearing daunting for the dancers — but it was not gritty, nor did it contain a moment of scandal as some have previously suggested. The partnering, while hands-on, was, instead, mild and tender.

Bailey Shaw and Eva Burton in in Stanton Welch’s “Indigo.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Welch’s Indigo depicted a sense of joyfulness, a celebration, and despite some grimacing faces as the dancers tried to keep up with the musically driven work set to Vivaldi, the abstract dance showcased a lovely forward-facing expression of line and formation. The dancers, each unique, brought their own subtleties to the choreography, making it appear different from performer to performer, couple to couple. They darted on and off stage, crossing and connecting the dots between duets and group sections, displaying nice pointe work in a happy marriage with occasional release and weight-dropping techniques.

Bailey Shaw and Alexandre Gomes Barbosa in Lauren Lovette’s “Eco.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Following a short intermission, the world premiere of former New York City Ballet principal Lauren Lovette’s five-part Eco took the stage. The large cast of dancers wore sheer flowing skirts, designed by Mark Zappone, that moved gracefully as they twisted and ran. Though the skirts waved nicely, unfortunately so did the curtains, which billowed with each entrance and exit of the cast. The focus on the wings detracted some from the large unison section, but awarded time for the viewer to appreciate the set, composed of large black 2-D rectangles, seemingly made from luxe wrinkled cloth, suspended in the tantalizing lighting design of Michael Mazzola.

Oregon Ballet Theatre Company Artists in the world premiere of Lauren Lovette’s “Eco.” Photo by James McGrew.

As Eco progressed into its second section titled Krakow, dancers Isaac Lee and Priyana Acharya dissolved into a duet, followed by Halo of Honey, showcasing Nicholas Sakai as he delivered a solo. It was in Draw a Map, which featured six of the piece’s performers, that Mathilde Lambert stood out to shine with her elegance and softness, melded effortlessly with strength. She executed inversions with stability, expressed generously through her upper body épaulement, traveled without fear, and displayed a vibrancy and ease that demanded the viewer’s attention.

Juliette Ochoa and Mathilde Lambert in Lauren Lovette’s “Eco.” Photo by James McGrew.

With valiant effort from the dancers, Lovette’s choreography, set to music by classical cellist Hilary Hahn and German pianist Hauschka, fused together visions of contemporary ballet, folk dance, and even Graham technique, despite her being the current resident choreographer at the Paul Taylor Company. Lovette, whose approach is to see choreography as building blocks, infused Eco with a moral of mindful sustainability, eco-consciousness, and the fragility of our existing consumerist social model, according to some of Dani Rowe’s opening words.

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Portland Center Stage at the Armory Coriolanus Portland Oregon

Hannah Davis as Firebird and Isaac Lee as Prince Ivan in Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird.” Photo by Yi Yin.

The third offering of the evening was former Bolshoi Ballet and San Francisco Ballet dancer Yuri Possokhov’s Firebird — the highlight of the night. Originally debuted in Paris’s Palais Garnier by Imperial Russian choreographer Michel Fokine in 1910 with a score by Igor Stravinsky, the dance was considered groundbreaking and exceedingly radical compared to other ballets performed at the time. Having only produced two ballets prior, Acis et Galatée in 1905 and a Dying Swan solo for ballet icon Anna Pavlova the same year, Fokine went on to help propel the Ballets Russes into stardom, working alongside dancers Tamara Karsavina, Vaslav Nijinsky, and Adolph Bolm.

Isaac Lee as Prince Ivan in Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird.” Photo by Yi Yin.

Firebird, the Russian-Slavic folk tale passed down to children to this day, tells the story of a magical bird made of fire. Ivan, a young and boisterous prince — or archer depending on the version of the tale — is granted the help of the bird to outsmart and overthrow an evil magician Tzar named Kaschie and save the beautiful Princess Vasilisa.

Charlotte Nash as the Princess, Isaac Lee as Prince Ivan, and Hannah Davis as Firebird in Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird.” Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert.

Possokhov’s version — originally commissioned by OBT in 2004 — starring Hannah Davis as The Firebird, Isaac Lee as Prince Ivan, Charlotte Nash as The Princess, and Michael Linsmeier as Kaschei, retains Russian folk dance elements such as flexed feet, low plies, extended lunges, swift jumps, and upturned hands while allowing the addition of the dancers’ softness to its core. With dazzling set work and costume design by Yuri Zhukov and world-affirming lighting by Michael Mazzola, the dancers were set free to encompass the spirit of their characters. Isaac Lee danced the youthfulness and tenacity of The Prince with wide-eyed curiosity and energetic flair, tapping into his acting skills to deliver facial expressions of fear, excitement, and triumph, while Hannah Davis let The Firebird’s flirtatiousness shine through her sculpted footwork. Overall, OBT’s Firebird delivered what any great ballet should — a spectacle of tragedy, beauty, heroism, heartbreak, fantasy, and love, wrapped in a bow of strong artistic execution.

Michael Linsmeier as Kaschei in Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird.” Photo by James McGrew.

The 2022-2023 season concludes with Made in Portland, June 8-11 at the Newmark Theatre. To explore the question “What have you heard about Portland, and how does it make you feel?,” OBT has commissioned four acclaimed choreographers, both local and national, to share their vision of the city, including Princess Grace Award winner Rena Butler, Guggenheim Fellow Hélène Simoneau, push/FOLD Founder and Director Samuel Hobbs, and OBT’s own rising star, Makino Hayashi.

This fall, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s 2023-2024 season is slated to open with Christopher Stowell’s Swan Lake in October and continue with Balanchine’s The Nutcracker in December, followed by Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan in February.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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One Response

  1. Dear Amy, Thanks for this review of OBT’s April show. The only thing other I’d like to have seen here is the date of the performance you saw. (There were many different casts and multiple performances so that would be helpful)

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