A New Look: Transforming the Classics

Classic Arts Features   A New Look: Transforming the Classics
We all know what the Firebird looks like. Or do we?


In the original 1910 Ballets Russes production of the ballet, she was a glamour gal swathed in Slavic finery, beads, feathers: Theda Bara on pointe. In more recent stagings, she's comparatively minimalist in a short red tutu, tights, and a feathered headdress. In Maurice Bejart's version of the ballet, she is a he: a hunk in red spandex.

Giving established classics a fresh look offers an opportunity for unexpected insights, juxtapositions, dialogue between tradition and innovation. This season, American Ballet Theatre is presenting two well-known story ballets in productions with new sets and costumes. For choreographer John Cranko's 1965 Onegin, Santo Loquasto has created new designs for a production that preserves Cranko's staging. For Firebird, Alexei Ratmansky, ABT's Artist in Residence, has choreographed a boldly original work to Stravinsky's familiar score, so it's only natural that scenic designer Simon Pastukh, costumer Galina Solovyeva and projectionist Wendall K. Harrington are coming up with a bold new mise en scne.

Pushkin Comes to Shove
John Cranko (1927-1973) created Onegin for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1965, and ABT first performed it in 2001, with sets and costumes by its initial designer, J‹rgen Rose. The ballet is danced to an assortment of Tchaikovsky's works arranged by Kurt-Heinz Stolze, and is based on Alexander Pushkin's novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin, published between 1825-31. The novel tells the tale of a cynical young dandy who drifts from ball to soiree to countryside. A naÇve young woman falls for the aloof hedonist and sends him a heartfelt love letter. He rejects her, and there follows renunciation, a fatal shooting, and a stunning reversal of fate. Yet Pushkin: and Cranko's ballet: doesn't overdo the drama; both versions are worldly-wise, alert to the characters' foibles, yet warm-hearted.

The Cranko estate has long been protective of his works, which were conceived as complete artistic entities, but in 2010 the National Ballet of Canada received permission to create a new physical production of Onegin. They asked Santo Loquasto to create it. Loquasto has a raft of awards for his theater and film work, but dancegoers know him for myriad ballets, many designed for ABT, where his work displays great range, among them an eye-filling Don Quixote and Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, which redefined contemporary elegance.

"Onegin is a wonderful ballet," says Loquasto, "and when I was contracted to do it, I made enquiries about J‹rgen Rose's design. He had a huge success as the original designer, and he continues to have an enormously busy international career. It turned out that he didn't want to go back to Onegin. I talked to Reid Anderson, who stages the ballet and who has been involved with Onegin most of his adult life, and met with him and Deiter Graefe, who as I understand it controls the rights to the ballet. They were very smitten with my ideas for the piece. My take on Onegin is a little more naturalistic."

So, how do you solve a problem like Onegin? Loquasto started with Pushkin, and then investigated the choreographer's ground plan: where the doors are, what furniture is needed: as well as practicalities like the length and volume of the women's skirts, so that they evoke the story's two historical eras and accommodate partnering. Where did more subjective artistic decisions like color come from? "It's just how I see it," he says. "Costumes help you tell stories emotionally. The power of color is substantial, even when it's diminished as opposed to vibrant. You certainly have Tatiana in the red dress; you have her in a dark gown at the end. Onegin has several jackets, always black. Lensky's costumes are more buoyant. But in general, the colors here wind up being light and creamy. The colors of the spring scene, even though I have set it in a glade of birch trees with green all around, are more like sunset. And then you move to a colder St. Petersburg, which is silvery grey and shimmering in the palette. My set design for Onegin is about the contraction and expansion of the space, so that the intimate scenes are, in fact, smaller spaces. The set suggests Russian atmosphere: birch trees and slightly decrepit architecture."

L'oiseau de Feu
Firebird launched composer Igor Stravinsky's association with impresario Sergei Diaghilev, which led to the mighty triumvirate of Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring: landmark ballets that continue to be performed worldwide. L_on Bakst and Alexandre Golovine's designs dazzled even the jaded Parisians at the ballet's premiere; Bakst's illustrations are still knockouts. Choreographer Michel Fokine based the ballet on a sort of mash-up of Russian tales about a magical bird, a prince, and a bevy of maidens in the thrall of Kaschei, a powerful sorcerer.

The creative team behind ABT's new Firebird features a troika of Russians: Ratmansky, Pastukh, and Solovyeva, who had previously created On the Dnieper, to music of Prokofiev, for ABT: and one American: projection designer Wendall K. Harrington. The company dances several of Ratmansky's works, abstract pieces as well as story ballets like The Bright Stream and The Nutcracker.

The new Firebird looks like none before. Think twisted metallic columns that evoke a forest of silver trees: or industrial smokestacks. Think beauteous maidens who might be Edward Scissorhands' sisters. Think a steampunk Kaschei, at once sinister and suave.

Simon Pastukh has designed over 200 opera, ballet, and theatrical productions at the Bolshoi, Mariinsky, and internationally. He had previously designed a Firebird elsewhere, but working with Ratmansky was appealing. "Alexei wanted to do Firebird a bit differently," Pastukh says. "We went through several versions of the design. One was extremely surreal; one was more modern; all were very different. We spent a lot of time talking, and we decided that the enchanted forest is the creation of Kaschei, who mystifies and captures people. It should be a magical, dangerous place. We wanted a forest, which isn't quite a regular forest, and wanted to create Kaschei's ballroom from the trees: with a sense of a Gothic cathedral. We decided to use projections to create those effects, with a surreal feeling."

ABT engaged Wendall K. Harrington to handle the projections. She has designed projections for musicals, dramas, operas: you name it. Her work makes the case for the integration of projections in the theater, not as ends in themselves but in the service of narrative, poetry, dreams. Pastukh calls her "a genius."

"Simon's concept for the ballet is a magical forest," says Harrington. "As research, I read a bunch of different versions of the story to get a sense of Alexei's and Simon's thinking about fairytales. It's very Russian: there is a darkness to them. The trees in Simon's set suggest industrial waste, and an evil wizard's forest might look like that. With projections, you can do a lot of things that are physically impossible. The forest could animate. It could change. It could seem to go on infinitely."

Still, Harrington doesn't want the projections to overwhelm. "The most important thing is not to distract from the ballet, from the dancers. Let's face it; what they do is better than anything in the world. I take that very seriously, and the only way I know to make something move that is not distracting is to embed it in the music. Then the music and the visuals work together."

Central to the new Firebird are the costumes. How closely did Pastukh work with the costume designer? "Pretty closely," he says with a laugh. "She is my wife."

Galina Solovyeva was resident costume designer for St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre for many years, and she has costumed more than 100 ballets, operas, and dramas internationally. How did she design the humans, birds, and magicians of Firebird? "Alexei's idea for this Firebird is very different, very original," says Solovyeva. "We wanted a new perspective, something unexpected. There will be a little bit of a shock: but it will be a beautiful shock."

Instead of the usual monsters, Kaschei is attended by female dancers. "I thought they should be cute in a way: they are not ghosts, they are more mysterious woodland creatures, a little eerie but also attractive somehow. They are in love with their boss, who is Kaschei. I saw him as handsome and evil, a bit like von Rothbart in Swan Lake, but more sophisticated."

Though it might seem that outfitting such an archetypal character as the Firebird is straightforward, Solovyeva did multiple designs for the creature. "This was the most difficult character to costume," she says. "For one thing, I have to consider freedom of movement with Alexei's complicated choreography. The headdress should look like a fire on the head; it should look like a feather and a fire at the same time. These were not easy costumes to build. But that's why I love working in the ballet. Sometimes, you make something magical.


Robert Sandla is Editor in Chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras, and writes frequently about the performing arts

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