(This review is by American-Statesman freelance writer Claire Christine Spera.)
Ballet Austin’s productions of “Agon” and “The Firebird” at the Long Center made for an evening of contrasts threaded together with a commonality: Both ballets are set to Igor Stravinsky scores, beautifully performed in this case by the Austin Symphony Orchestra.
The differences between “Agon” and “The Firebird” are stark: Abstract dance versus story ballet; basic leotards and tights versus Russian-themed character costuming; a plain stage versus scenic design; and classic George Balanchine choreography versus that by Ballet Austin’s artistic director, Stephen Mills.
In “Agon,” presented by Ballet Austin by arrangement with The George Balanchine Trust, the choreography demands exactitude. The simple garments and adornment-free stage, which features only a blue background, leave us to focus exclusively on the dance, set to a Stravinsky score with memorable horn melodies. The classical vocabulary of arabesques, pirouettes and tableaus comes with contemporary flairs. The women, though dancing en pointe, bend their supporting legs and perform flat-footed turns; meanwhile, the ensemble unfurls their legs into high extensions and thrusts the hips forward, out of classical alignment. In comical moments, small body wiggles had the audience laughing. The tableaus often have the women balancing in one-legged positions between male partners.
From the series of duets, trios and quartets that make up the ballet, the long lines of Ashley Lynn Sherman and Christopher Swaim at the Sept. 27 performance stood out. In a moment of contrast, they both came to a hunched-forward position, with one of Sherman’s legs wrapped around the back of Swaim’s neck.
From the moment the overture begins for Mills’ version of “The Firebird,” we’re thrust into the foreboding realm of an enchanted forest, ruled over by Kastchei the Immortal (Edward Carr, in a creepy skeleton-esque costume). The guttural humming of strings gives way to outbursts of energy when the Firebird enters, flashing around the stage in a red-gold tutu (all sets and costumes were on loan from Louisville Ballet). As the Firebird, Jaime Lynn Witts transformed her body, incorporating a twitching head and quivering arms to bring the wings of the creature to life. Her one-legged hops in arabesque gave a flighty air to scene.
Mills’ choreography has many lovely moments. Nine princesses — led by Sherman, with whom Ivan (Frank Shott) falls in love — pluck golden apples from a tree that they toss and roll around the forest. When the evil Kastchei captures Ivan, the ensemble of castle guards, wives and princesses fills the stage, creating a feast of dynamic visual patterns accented by the Russian-flavored costuming. Ultimately, the Firebird rushes to Ivan’s aid, and though winds up mortally wounded by Kastchei, Ivan discovers the egg that contains the skeleton king’s soul and smashes it to the ground, giving his protectress new life.
Ballet Austin’s program over the weekend showed that just as the Firebird is reborn, so is ballet; from classical to contemporary, today’s ballet dancers are expected to do it all.