REVIEW: The Firebird with Paquita (Royal New Zealand Ballet)

Review by Brigitte Knight

[Old Forms; New Visions]

The Royal New Zealand Ballet’s double bill of The Firebird with Paquita presents two traditional, narrative classical ballets in boldly contrasting ways. Opening the programme, Paquita remains faithful to the Imperial Ballet style in approach and realisation. First staged in Russia in 1847, the work is retained in the repertoire of ballet companies worldwide, including Aotearoa, where the national company has toured productions a number of times. Originally a three-act ballet, Paquita is these days performed as single Grand pas Classique; the final joyous act celebrating the technical brilliance of classical ballet.

RNZB’s Paquita, staged by Michael Auer and Patricia Barker on Marius Petipa’s original choreography, shows meticulous care and attention to detail. True to form the Grand pas Classique is one note emotionally, building tension and excitement amongst the audience through considered scaffolding of increasingly daring and virtuosic choreography. Principals Kate Kadow and Laurynas Vėjalis are perfectly cast in Paquita’s leading roles, delivering mastery of the most demanding elements of the choreography, with Vėjalis’ bravura and elevation eliciting physical reactions and gasps from the audience during his final variation. Formation, technique and classical style are at the forefront of Paquita with assured performances by almost all of the ballet’s corps. Principal Mayu Tanigaito and soloists Kihiro Kusukami, Katherine Skelton and Sean James Kelly are outstanding for their brilliance of classical line and control in the pas de trois, coryphée and corps respectively. Skelton in particular is an extremely consistent dancer with a generous performance quality, and one I hope audiences will see more of in larger roles in the future. Similarly, young newcomer and inaugural RNZB Foundation Scholar Jemima Scott is delightfully vibrant and formidably precise; already dancing with the coryphée indicating she has plenty more to offer.

Following intermission, RNZB Choreographer in Residence Loughlan Prior’s latest commission The Firebird is a striking juxtaposition of style and form. Developing as a signature amongst his diverse and prolific works, Prior’s creativity is matched by the intelligence of his approach to concept, musical interpretation and movement vocabulary. In imagining a completely new adaptation of The Firebird, first performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s cutting edge and contemporary Ballet Russes in 1910, Prior reconsiders the narratives of women characters, giving them agency and status.   

At the heart the production, Prior’s Firebird is both a symbol of the natural world and an elemental deity, combining ecology and mythology to create a bridge between the escapism of ballet and the wider dialogue around the urgency of climate change. Effortlessly, The Firebird embraces the best of traditional and contemporary elements; Stravinsky’s original score, pointe work reserved to create ethereal and superhuman length, fully-incorporated digital animation by POW Studios, and a modern, clean set and costume design by Tracy Grant Lord. Unfortunately, being seated in the second row meant that all of the floor projection was invisible, and much of the front projection and lighting effects were compromised by the challenging sight-lines in Wellington’s Opera House. To experience the full realisation of Prior’s narrative development and designs, a seat near the centre of the stalls is essential. 

In the title role, soloist Ana Gallardo Lobaina is simply magnificent. The Firebird’s movement vocabulary is nuanced, at times animalistic, requiring breadth of emotional range, physical dexterity and technical strength. Lobaina’s resplendence as the Firebird drives the narrative forward and builds genuine emotional connection with the audience. Principal guest artist Harrison James as Arrow performs superbly and with a subdued power, allowing Prior to realise his innovative, fluid pas de deux choreography at its finest. Principals Sara Garbowski as Neve, Paul Mathews as The Burnt Mask and soloist Kirby Selchow as Elizaveta capture the intricacies of tension and depth of character required to realise the dystopian wasteland of The Firebird’s setting. The Firebird is a sophisticated and thoughtful fusion of the magic and theatricality of ballet, with the devastating reality of the consequences faced by all life on Earth if humanity fails to recognise our connection and symbiosis with the living world. The Firebird is applauded rapturously on opening night, solidifying the work as both timely and vital.

The Firebird with Paquita plays Wellington’s Opera House 29-31st July, 2021 and is touring to Napier, Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Palmerston North

Choreography: Marius Petipa
Staging: Michael Auer and Patricia Barker
Music: Ludwig Minkus and Edouard Deldevez
Costume Design: Donna Jefferis and Patricia Barker
Scenic Design: Howard C Jones
Lighting Design: Jon Buswell

Choreography: Loughlan Prior
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Costume & Set Design: Tracy Grant Lord
Animation: POW Studios
Lighting Design: Jon Buswell

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