Ballet Austin’s ‘Firebird’ takes flight

One of Ballet Austin‘s most memorable efforts from the early 1990s was a popular but controversial 1993 staging of “Firebird” that featured, as arts writer Sondra Lomax drily put it: “a prison camp overseen by an evil warden who rides a motorcycle.”

Did we need that?

I remember it with fondness, however, because of performances in the title role by Nadya Zybine, whose fierce, compact presence onstage won’t easily be forgotten.

The next artistic director, Stephen Mills, followed with his own reinvention of the ballet in 2009. Mills stuck more closely to the aesthetic of Igor Stravisnky‘s revolutionary 1910 score.

Aara Krumpe as the titular character in Stephen Mills’ ‘The Firebird.’ This photo is from an earlier performance of the same Ballet Austin interpretation. Contributed

Ballet Austin revived this more compatible “Firebird” last week and paired it with Lar Lubovitch‘s 2007 “Dvorák Serenade,” which we’ll consider first.

In abstract segments that employed between two and 12 dancers, Lubovitch employs mathematical precision to portray various forms of romantic affection.

The choreography fit the company like a glove, in part because Lubovitch’s contemporary ballet vocabulary — which includes the liberal use of modern dance — seems closely related to Mills’ in the way that curves are elongated and repeated, physical connections are extended, and the patterns are rigorously completed.

Lubovitch’s emotional reticence keeps the audience at a distance, except for fleeting moments of tenderness, joy and, at the end, outright diversion. Ashley Lynn Sherman and Oliver Green-Cramer refined the purity of the ensemble’s movements into perfection as the lead couple.

In the much more dynamic “Firebird,” Mills staged the first scene — as Prince Ivan hunts then befriends the mythical creature — in a bold, muscular Russian Classical style, then switched over to a softer look out of the Romantic era for the entry of Tsarevna and her princesses.

The arrival of elaborately costumed Edward Carr as the evil Kastchei the Immortal changed the tone again to one that could have been borrowed from Asian theater. Eventually, all three styles were combined thrillingly in the climactic showdown.

As they did during the Dvorák, Peter Bay and the Austin Symphony kept the famous Stravinsky score tightly under rein.

Among the double-cast roles, Morgan Stillman embodied the epitome of a balletic prince as Ivan on Sunday, expertly foregrounding his two partners, while Chelsea Marie Renner delicately revealed the inner fortitude of Tsarevna.

Yet all eyes were on Aara Krumpe whenever she entered — and then dominated — the stage as the Firebird. Her form was all but flawless and her power breathtaking. You don’t expect to be moved by “Firebird,” but this time I was.

I think I found my new Firebird, 25 years later.

 

‘The Nutcracker’ and “Drowsy Chaperone’ holiday tidbits

Ballet Austin’s “The Nutcracker” and the University of Texas’ “The Drowsy Chaperone” will be well worth your entertainment time this coming week. Here’s a taste of two articles about the shows.

 

The corps de ballet dance through a snowy “Nutcracker” scene in 2016, with Constance Doyle up front. Contributed

READ FULL “NUTCRACKER” STORY.

They come and go so quickly.

Oh, sure, some lucky ballet dancers manage to extend their careers for decades. Others happily switch to congruent creative roles at a convenient age. But just when you think you’ve identified all the major players in Ballet Austin — which opens its holiday treat, “The Nutcracker,” on Dec. 8 — myriad new faces joins the familiar ones onstage.

Already this season, veteran ballet watchers have noted a spate of younger talent on the Long Center stage. Now you can catch all of them through Dec. 23 because, for “The Nutcracker,” it’s all feet on deck.

PHOTOS: Ballet Austin’s ‘The Nutcracker’ through the years

Often a major role will be played by multiple dancers over the course of a long run. Watch for the relative newcomers during the Christmas party scene in Act 1, or dancing through snowflake magic as part of the corps de ballet later in the same act, or playing featured roles during the divertissements — the always diverting specialty dances — in Act 2. And elsewhere.

Some of these dancers are newly minted members of the main company; others serve in Ballet Austin II, the group’s farm team, as it were.

Now, we are not talking about the darling tots who hide under Mother Ginger’s huge skirt or play with gifts while teasing each other during the party sequence. These are professional dancers who have more recently come into the spotlight. Let’s introduce a few …

Natasha Davison (choreographer, center) and Nick Mayo (director, right) during rehearsals for “The Drowsy Chaperone” at the University of Texas. Contributed by Lawrence Peart

READ FULL “DROWSY CHAPERONE” STORY.

A show within a show, “The Drowsy Chaperone” tests the limits of the musical genre. On one level, it is a celebration of the giddy often mindless musicals of the 1920s. On another, it is a sharp critique of the stereotypes and cultural shorthand of the day.

As such, it makes an ideal candidate for a college musical theater program like the one at the University of Texas that, despite some high points, did not work out and will suspend operations — while Texas State University ramps up its efforts — with this carefully chosen material, while continuing to probe the history of theater for all its shifting meanings.

We asked director Nick Mayo about the musical that plays Dec. 6-10 at the Payne Theatre. Getting into the 1920s spirit of the show, he sent us some telegraphic notes.

Warning: The plot is ridiculously complicated. You see, a musical theater fan called Man in Chair introduces a show within a show called “The Drowsy Chaperone” about a mixed-up wedding that includes gangsters, mistaken identities and exotic locales, all of which infiltrate the Man in Chair’s apartment …

Don’t miss this final Romeo from Paul Michael Bloodgood at Ballet Austin

Paul Michael Bloodgood is a prince. He’s a family man. He’s a superb dancer.

And he’s dancing his last Romeo with Ballet Austin on Sept. 15 and Sept 17. This “Romeo and Juliet” is propelled by the kinetic music of Sergei Prokofiev played by the Austin Symphony Orchestra, of course with choreography by Stephen Mills.

Despite all the excellent talent onstage, for two of the three nights, all eyes will be on Bloodgood, who has long been a standout for the company.

I suppose every Romeo must come to an end.

Austin dancer Kele Roberson heads to the Royal Ballet

Kele Roberson, who studied at Austin’s Dance Institute and the  Austin School for the Performing and Visual Arts, deferred a $25,000 scholarship to the Juilliard School in order to join the Royal Ballet School in London. This program funnels some dancers into one of the top ballet companies in the world and is quite an opportunity for Roberson, who gave an interview on the subject to Jennifer Stahl for Dance Magazine.

Austin’s Kele Roberson. Contributed by Dance Magazine

“I only had to watch a deep plié before writing down a 10 out of 10 on his score sheet and scribbling a giant star next to his name,” Stahl says of Roberson’s audition for the New York City Dance Alliance‘s college scholarship program. “Before he even had a chance to show off his incredible lines, I was mesmerized by his nuanced grace in even the simplest of movements.”

Roberson, who started studying ballet at age 11 and completed a summer program with the Royal Ballet, still might attend Juilliard later.

“As of right now, that’s the plan. Juilliard’s always been a dream,” he told Stahl “I graduated a year ahead (I’m still 17) so I decided to take this year at The Royal to perfect what I can in terms of technique, and hope to audition for Juilliard next year…”

News of his coup spread quickly on social media.

“What a phenomenal artist already!” says dancer Andrea Williams. “I’m going to miss seeing him dance everyday but I’m so glad he’s going to the Royal Ballet!”