Suzanne Haag plays with fire

"The Firebird" tests the former Eugene Ballet dancer's transition from performer to choreographer

By GARY FERRINGTON

On a recent flight home to Eugene, former Eugene Ballet dancer Suzanne Haag struck up a casual conversation with the man seated next to her. He asked her the questions non-dancers usually ask: What are pointe shoes made of? What’s a typical workday like? Then he asked her what it was like to retire after dancing with the company for 15 seasons, and whether she had any regrets. It wasn’t the first time she has fielded that question, Haag told ArtsWatch: “I keep getting asked ‘How do you feel, you know, now that you are done?’”

In retrospect, she said, there are things she might have done differently: working out and practicing more on her days off, asking for additional feedback and guidance on how to improve, seeking different roles.  But, she concluded, “… that’s not regret, just my older, more experienced self assessing my work.”

As the plane prepared to land, Haag acknowledged to her seatmate that while her life in dance was indeed about to change, it wasn’t about to end. Reflecting on her career made her realize that she had been preparing for this transition since she was a young dancer.

Suzanne Haag (left) coaches Reed Souther and Yuki Beppu in "Surrounding Third." Photo by Antonio Anacan
Suzanne Haag (left) coaches Reed Souther and Yuki Beppu in “The Surrounding Third.” Photo by Antonio Anacan.

Haag’s passion for ballet began at a young age in her native Connecticut, when she saw former New York City Ballet principal dancer Suzanne Farrell perform on Sesame Street. “Since she had the same name as me, I figured I should be a ballet dancer,” Haag said. And so she studied to become one.

Along the way she found herself in awe of the directors and choreographers who passed through School of the Hartford Ballet, where she initially trained. “I wanted to do that, to be that,” she said. She was unfazed by the fact that the visiting choreographers were all men: she developed a positive attitude about a career as a dancer and choreographer because of what she described as “fair and empowering composition teachers and probably a bit of naiveté on my part.”

After earning a Bachelor of Science in Arts Administration and Dance from Indiana’s Butler University, where she graduated cum laude, she went on to dance with Ballet Idaho and Nevada Ballet Theatre before joining the Eugene Ballet in 2003. She performed as a corps de ballet dancer in pieces by the company’s artistic director, Toni Pimble, and by guest artists including Jessica Lang, Robert Battle, and Septime Webre.  

She ended her performance career with the company during the 2017-2018 season, dancing the role of Åse in Peer Gynt. It was extremely bittersweet, she said, as the character dies and “it definitely felt like I was leaving my career behind onstage.”


Pink Martini and Eugene Ballet perform “Sympathique,” featuring Haag’s choreography. Video courtesy of Eugene Ballet.

Haag began her transition from dancer to choreographer in 2016 when the Eugene Ballet commissioned her to create her first short work, Look, followed in 2017 by a second piece, The Surrounding Third. In a 2018 collaboration between Eugene Ballet and Portland’s Pink Martini, company dancers performed pieces that Haag, Pimble, and dance instructor/choreographer Sarah Ebert choreographed to the band’s music, which the band performed live during the show. Last August, Pimble appointed Haag Eugene Ballet’s resident choreographer as  part of a long-term plan in which dancer-turned-associate director Jennifer Martin will gradually take on the artistic director position and Haag the choreographer role as Pimble joins Eugene Ballet co-founder Riley Grannan in retirement.

Haag earned the promotion, Pimble said, based on her long-time commitment to the company and the innovative choreography she has created for it and for the Eugene Youth Ballet. “Inventive,” “bold,” and “ambitious” are some of the words Pimble used to describe Haag’s achievements. “It was clear to me, having seen this work and knowing Suzanne’s total commitment to the art of ballet, that she is the right person to carry the art form forward for Eugene Ballet,” Pimble said.

In addition to her choreographic duties at Eugene Ballet, Haag has been awarded several choreographic residencies in the last few years to create work around the country as well as in Eugene. This year she received the Joan Shipley Fellowship, the highest honorary award given to an individual artist by the Oregon Arts Commission. The award will allow Haag to create new dance pieces this summer, separate from commissioned work. “I will be using small groups of dancers to further explore my voice as a choreographer, free from the specific guidelines of a particular show,” she explained. Unlike her current body of work, which requires multiple dancers or extensive props, these smaller projects will be more portable and may appeal to dance festivals, international choreographic competitions, and commissioning organizations.

All of these experiences have helped Haag hone her choreographic skills. And they will be put to the test in a big way this spring as she unveils her unique vision of a classic ballet.  


Concept video for “The Firebird” by Suzanne Haag. Video by Katherine Snowden Williams.

 

The Firebird: New Beginnings

“I think before she fully got the question out of her mouth, I said yes,” Haag said, recalling the moment Pimble asked if she’d be interested in choreographing a new production of The Firebird. “The fact that I’ve been given the opportunity to create my own version so early in my choreographic career is both exciting and a bit terrifying. I feel that it is one of those coveted ballets that choreographers long to interpret.”

The Firebird holds great significance for Eugene Ballet. “When the Hult Center opened in 1982, Toni’s production of The Firebird was one of the first works to be presented on that stage, Haag said: “Because The Firebird was such a big deal to Eugene Ballet then, Toni decided to present it again for the fortieth anniversary season, but in a new way. I am honored that I am a part of this project.”

It’s a project that poses plenty of challenges. Unlike evening-length ballets such as Swan Lake or The Sleeping Beauty, The Firebird runs some 40 minutes with a lot of action that needs to be choreographed into that relatively brief time frame. And, Haag said, much of her own work has been non-narrative: she has not had an opportunity to explore a full story with a cast of characters. In The Firebird she is using the entire company.

Pimble stipulated that Haag’s version of The Firebird had to be a more contemporary interpretation than the 1982 version. This has made the conceptualizing and telling the tale exciting for Haag, who has long been intrigued by dystopian books, movies, and television shows. “The fictitious interaction of people trying to rebuild after a disaster is fascinating to me,” she said. “When the world is turned upside down, would fear make us turn on each other or help each other?”

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, about a father-and-son journey through a post-apocalyptic world, influenced her thinking. “I took the vagueness of the disaster into account when creating my own world for The Firebird,” she said, adding that she was “struck by the fact that what keeps the characters in The Road alive is their love for each other. Love in general plays a big part in my interpretation. The Firebird has a triumphant and uplifting ending, unlike The Road, and I want to show love overcoming fear. This is what I’m exploring in my version for The Firebird.”  

The original 1910 Ballets Russes production of The Firebird, with choreography by Michel Fokine, was based on a Russian fairy tale about the blessings and curse the mythical Firebird presents its owner. The hero, Prince Ivan, works with the Firebird to defeat an evil sorcerer (Kashchei the Deathless) and rescue captive princesses, one of whom Ivan marries.

Haag has moved the tale from a Russian forest to an apocalyptic future, and emphasized the romance between Prince Ivan (here called Hero) and a princess (called Love) to make the story “feel more realistic and a bit more human.” Because Love is kidnapped early in the ballet, Hero must search for her in a dystopian world. Along the way, he encounters the Firebird, and together, they defeat the Kashchei character (here called Fear) and rescue Love and a community of men and woman known as “Us” (kidnapped princesses in the original production).

Firebird costume design by S-Curve Apparel & Design. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Haag

Firebird costume design by S-Curve Apparel & Design. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Haag.

Designer Susan Roemer fits Yamil Maldonado in one third of the Firebird costume. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Haag

Designer Susan Roemer fits Yamil Maldonado in one third of the Firebird costume. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Haag.

While Pimble’s Firebird was set in a magical garden where dancers wore costumes reminiscent of the Russian source material, “I decided to go a different direction in terms of time and place for the tale,” Haag said. “My overall look and feel is a futuristic dystopia … a community in ruins that, once scorched by disaster, begins to heal.” S-Curve Apparel & Design founder Susan Roemer created the costumes. “They still have a slight fairy-tale feel with a modern twist,” Haag said. Roemer dresses the ensemble in black and gray costumes resembling armor that might be worn in a futuristic army. “Though each costume is slightly different, stressing individuality within the group, Susan has added bits of green fabric … to represent new growth,” Haag said. “There is a strong element of hope in her costumes, and this matches nicely with the score and the uplifting trajectory of the story.”

 

Three dancers become a single Firebird. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet.

Three dancers become a single Firebird. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet.

Another change from tradition is that the Firebird is usually played by one female dancer. “But I wanted to stress the message in my work that when overcoming an obstacle, people are stronger when they work together,” Haag said. “Therefore my Firebird is made up of three dancers. They are costumed to create a single bird character when they dance together.” For example, one dancer has only the right wing, one the left, and one the tail and head. When they dance separately, they all still appear bird-like.

Haag has also spent considerable time thinking about Igor Stravinsky’s score. “Having live music for any dance performance elevates the experience for both the audience and the performer. It turns a performance into a living, breathing thing.” Haag said about working with Orchestra Next conductor Brian McWhorter on selecting the right musical approach for this performance of The Firebird.  

Haag and McWhorter spent a lot of time listening to various recordings before deciding to use the full Firebird score instead of one of the three shorter suites with reduced orchestrations that Stravinsky had compiled. The audio recording they selected was a version that Stravinsky himself had conducted. Haag has been using that recording while working on the choreography with her cadre of dancers, and McWhorter has referenced it in preparing Orchestra Next’s 60-plus players for performance.


Haag works through complex movement with Eugene Ballet dancers. Video by Antonio Anacan.

Both Haag and McWhorter noted that the music is colorful and technically challenging with its changes in meter and syncopated rhythms. It has become one of the most iconic examples of classical musical modernism. Its performance takes a lot of mental energy and focus. And while there is so much intrinsic expression in the music, it isn’t always an easy style to feel. “Altogether, The Firebird is tough! Getting through it will be a tremendous achievement for all of us.” McWhorter told ArtsWatch.

Using the full Firebird score, Haag said, helps her tell the tale vividly. “If you close your eyes and listen, you can hear what Stravinsky is saying: here are clear moments of tension and triumph,” she said. “When the Firebird dances, it sounds like a bird fluttering around the stage. When Kashchei the Deathless, or in my version, Fear, appears, the music is extremely sinister. This takes the guesswork out of my job as choreographer in terms of setting the story.”

 

Suzanne Haag is looking ahead to her new life as a choreographer. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet. 

Suzanne Haag is looking ahead to her new life as a choreographer. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet.

After the final curtain

Although she has been thinking a lot about what it will feel like not to dance, Haag is looking forward to creating new dances, starting this spring with a New York City Ballet Choreographic Institute Commission Initiative grant, which she received in June 2018. She will use the funding to work on a new piece, Heaven and Earth, for Eugene Ballet’s 2019-2020 season. The music is a 20-minute tone poem from percussionist/composer and University of Oregon professor Pius Cheung. The grant will allow Haag and Cheung extra time in the studio to workshop movement concepts and collaboratively expand the score.

Meanwhile, she is anxious to continue #instaballet, an innovative summer program she and fellow Eugene Ballet dancer Antonio Anacan founded in 2013 to expand public interest in ballet. At First Friday ArtWalks, viewers are encouraged to suggest ideas and movements. In just two hours, Haag, Anacan, and Eugene Ballet dancers weave these together into a fully conceptualized short work that the dancers perform at the end of the evening. (See Crowd Sourced Choreography.)

“In a way, the transition has been wonderful in that I am working with the same staff and dancers that I was working with as a dancer, so there is that comfort and familiarity,” Haag mused. “I feel like I’m doing a similar job, but from a different angle. Working in the studio, whether as a dancer or a choreographer, is creative work and involves a ton of problem solving.” That said, switching from dancing to choreographing hasn’t been easy. “I’ve been training and performing my whole life, and though I am still working in the field, I do miss the extreme physicality of the work and I definitely miss performing,” she said. “The indescribable feeling of performing for a live audience was what kept me pursuing my career as a dancer, and I am hopeful that creating new work for audiences will at least keep part of that feeling with me.”

Eugene Ballet performs “The Firebird” April 13-14 on a program with Gerald Arpino’s “Italian Suite” and Pimble’s “Bolero” at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets and information at https://www.hultcenter.org/

 

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