Forget the flowing scarlet feathers you picture when someone mentions The Firebird. Ballet Arizona opens its intriguing take on the classic Russian ballet this week – with a futuristic twist. It’s choreographed by Ib Andersen, the company’s artistic director since 2000.
Andersen created a whole new world for the mythical beast, set far in the future, when creatures from different planets collide during an epic battle between good and evil. It’s the perfect vehicle for marrying Andersen’s talents for visual art and movement.
Born in Copenhagen, Andersen danced with the Royal Danish Ballet before joining New York City Ballet, where he was a principal dancer under renowned choreographer George Balanchine during the 1980s. Today, Andersen creates work that beautifully blends classic and contemporary ballet.
“Everything he’s made has been bigger, deeper, more energetic,” according to Mimi Tompkins. The 25-year-old is one of two dancers who’ll perform the Firebird role. “His vision is getting grander.” Instead of red feathers, she’ll don a costume that starts with a nude body suit. And she’ll be portraying an alien, rather than a bird.
Bringing Andersen’s vision to life was a team effort.
For dancers, it meant coupling technical precision with layers of emotional impact. ‘’The ballet is very intense,” says Ethan Price. The 21-year-old dancer performs the role of a villain named Kastchei, who has an army of android robots built with animal parts collected during fantastical journeys. Price appreciates each character’s complexity. “I wouldn’t say anybody in this story is particularly good,” he says.
For the costume and lighting designers, realizing Andersen’s vision required finding new ways to tell a story that originated over a century ago. Igor Stravinsky composed The Firebird, which Ballet Russes premiered at the Paris Opera in 1910. Among other things, attitudes towards princesses and princes have significantly evolved over time.
The ballet has been reinterpreted through the years, by Balanchine and others. Misty Copeland made history in 2012 as the first African-American woman to dance the Firebird role, performing in an American Ballet Theatre production choreographed by Russian-American Alexi Ratmansky.
Andersen found inspiration in post-apocalyptic films, including Mad Max, which both dancers and designers watched early in the process of bringing the ballet to life. Fabio Toblini, who designed The Firebird costumes, drew inspiration from Elizabethan doublets, medieval armor, and 1970s television shows. His army costumes include patches reminiscent of Star Trek uniforms, and sleeves that resemble articulated exoskeletons.
Toblini worked with a wide range of materials, from crystals to reflective tape. Before molding a material often used in cosplay, he turned to YouTube videos for instructions. His designs also include an elaborate headpiece for the Firebird, and her gold shimmering makeup, complete with crystals.
But he turned to music as well, including an early 1980s hip-hop artist named Burt Rammellzee, who built 3-D bodysuits with found objects. There’s a dramatic reveal near the end of Andersen’s piece in which body armor gets torn away to reveal a form-fitting bodysuit bearing the image of human lymphatic and circulatory systems.
Andersen mentioned several films, including Blade Runner and Avatar, when talking with lighting designer Michael Korsch about creating the visual backdrop for the ballet. Korsch’s design includes projections, shown on a curved screen that’s about 28 feet high and 87 feet wide. Korsch describes them as “immersive and ever-changing.”
A lot of Korsch's imagery is multilayered, culled from sources ranging from stock images to his own photographs. “It’s very environmental with a 3-D feeling,” he says. “It feels like it’s something terrestrial, but it isn’t.”
Soon, it will be time to unveil Andersen’s futuristic vision to the world. The first time it all came together was Tuesday, February 12, when rehearsals moved to Symphony Hall. There, dancers and creatives will finally see Andersen’s The Firebird come to fruition.
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Last week, an air of quiet calm filled Ballet Arizona studios as dancers rehearsed with Andersen and designers continued to finesse their work. There were still decisions to be made, including whether or not dancers performing the Firebird role would wear white-out contact lenses.
Costumes hung on long garment racks, inside a large room filled with tables, where the gentle hum of sewing machines signaled that many of the pieces were still works in progress. Toblini, dressed in dark colors and sporting thick-rimmed glasses, stood in the midst of it all, contemplating finishing touches on knee pads with sculptural qualities.
Despite all the attention to details, Price has his eye on the big picture. “The Firebird will be a defining moment for Ballet Arizona, pushing the boundaries of classical ballet,” he says. “Ballet has to evolve with the culture; that’s how it stays relevant.”