It is a rarity to have a full orchestra onstage instead of in a pit for a ballet production, but when it is handled right, the challenging configuration can be mesmerizing. That was the case at the premiere of Firebird: Reimagined, a centerpiece of the Mann Center’s 40th anniversary season. The full Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Cristian Măcelaru were positioned behind a dozen dancers and Janni Younge's giant puppets. Younge’s Handspring Company created the life-size equines in the play War Horse and Firebird’s creatures are just as impressive.
Somethng old, something new
Having the orchestra onstage adds a rare performance dimension; in flamenco it is called duende, that electric energy between dancers and the musicians. There are risks in a story ballet, especially a newly interpreted one where the visual narrative focus is key. But these risks were non-issues for a crowd of over 4,000 that hardly moved during the performance, and roared their approval at its conclusion.
Igor Stravinsky’s 1910 Firebird score and choreographer Michel Fokine’s original choreography told the Russian folktale of Prince Ivan’s search for love in the forbidden garden of a sinister magician. In Younge’s and choreographer Jay Pather’s update there is no Prince Ivan. Instead, the central character is “the Seeker,” a South African woman struggling to find inner strength and purpose amidst poverty and injustice. It is the story of modern South African history, and the firebird is the symbol of her empowerment.
Pather’s troupe of 12 South African dancers fused African folkloric dance, contemporary western idioms, and dance pantomime. There are scenes of warrior-stick dances and communal ritual, as well as body clapping, and vibrant acrobatics. Pather asks a lot of the dancers and puppeteers and this cast makes the most of it with true ensemble esprit.
Jacqueline Manyaapelo gives a commanding, emotional performance as "the Seeker," and her dance artistry is subtle and expressive. Shaun Oelf dances “the Creative,” who commands the stage as a mythic winged specter. His aerial balletics are hypnotic. Ntombi Gasa, as “the Alchemist of Honesty” moves with power and grace while guiding Manyaapelo through her perilous journey.
Meanwhile, Younge’s skeletal serpents and aviary creatures swoop around menacingly as different versions of the firebird also swirl around Manyaapelo. At points, this Firebird is packed with too many ideas. Pather’s choreography is so dynamic that other elements, including the puppets and images of poverty and injustice projected on fabric above the stage, were a distraction.
As Stravinsky’s score downshifts with more serene atmospheric orchestral enclaves, there is some choreographic filler. The Seeker interacts with partially humanoid puppets called “the Innocents” with some hazy narrative and clunky movement transitions.
But the theatrical arc of this story ballet is solidly built to appeal to a wide audience, with something for everyone, and its humanitarian message is stirring and resonant. Meanwhile, this audience was obviously entranced by the ingenuity and craft of its puppet design.
Sound and vision
Măcelaru delivers Stravinsky’s score with sharp tempos and equalizes its lyrical grandeur in the open-air venue. Some scoring effects by theater and film composer Daniel Eppel are laced in at key narrative moments. The strings sound as lush as ever in the open air and violinist Juliet Kang is particularly masterful on the lead lines.
The first half of Firebird features South Africa’s legendary male a capella ensemble Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The group performs a quartet of songs that showcase their inimitable vocalese and highlight their cooler-than-cool group choreography.
"The Larch Tree” and “The Vain Suitor” are two Russian folksongs that Stravinsky orchestrally quotes in his Firebird score. Mann Artistic Director Nolan Williams gives new transcriptions of these songs to Ladysmith and to two young area singers, Andrew Lawson, a classically trained baritone from University of the Arts, and popular Philly neosoul singer Zeek. Williams has also organized and collaborated on several outreach projects around this production over the last several months involving students and community.