Kastchei: Oleg Stepanov
Ivan: Aviad Arik Herman
The Firebird: Fredrik Wentzel
Nina: Angelina Allen
Women: Therese Fredriksson, Kyoko Matsumoto, Ekaterina Shushakova
Golden boys: Nigel Campbell, Andrej Glosniak
Bodyguards: Robin Johansson, Jakob Isaksson, Victor Mengarelli
Ensemble: 78 amateur dancers
Gothenburg Opera Dance Company
Choreography and set: Fredrik Benke Rydman
Costume design: Tomas Sjöstedt
Lighting design: Tobias Hallgren
The lower strings began playing, almost too soft to hear. At first the curtain rises only to knee height, showing the legs of a group of people going to a club. A pair of legs in pink trousers cannons and pirouettes through the group of black trousers and tights. The movements already start characterising the soloists before the curtain fully rises.
The pink trousers belong to Ivan. In Fredrik Benke Rydman’s retelling of The Firebird he is an outsider, unaware of the social codes that govern the clubbers around him. Not only has he not realised the black is the new black, but he makes the big mistake of falling for Nina, one of the gangster Kastchei’s girls. The Firebird is a misfit, he knows the club and the clubbers but doesn’t fit in. Ivan and the Firebird are drawn to each other. When Kastchei arrives and finds Ivan and Nina together, he and his bodyguards try to punish Ivan and Nina but are defeated by the Firebird, who loses his life.
Fredrik Benke Rydman describes in the programme how he “listened the music to bits” when he was asked to choreograph The Firebird, a work he didn’t know before. He says he found the music difficult to understand, but his choreography shows no signs of that. On the contrary, it is wonderfully responsive to every nuance in Stravinsky’s multifaceted score as well as expressive.
Oleg Stepanov’s absolutely gripping Kastchei, for example, positively dripped menace, malice and evil magic with choreography that seemed to use every joint in his body. The outsider Ivan (Aviad Arik Herman) had much more balletic and graceful choreography, which he executed beautifully and with real interaction with the other characters.
Nina (Angelina Allen) and the other three women spend much of the time cooped up in a VIP balcony by Kastchei’s bodyguards, but that small space is used well and when they charmed the bodyguards into letting them onto the dance floor their dancing fizzed with joie de vivre. The meeting and courting of Nina and Ivan is simple choreographically but beautiful and touching.
The bodyguards are three of Sweden’s best breakdancers: Robin Johansson, Jakob Isaksson, Victor Mengarelli. They were indeed terrific, at first arrogant and threatening then unleashed in a virtuosic dance battle with the Firebird. It is this scene where the Firebird (ex-Swedish and Scandinavian champion breakdancer Fredrik Wentzel) had his most sensational performance, thrilling the audience so much he was given an ovation. But Mr Wentzel performs memorably throughout the ballet, from his first surreptitious steps into the club, his meeting with Ivan and finally his very moving death after his victory over Kastchei and the bodyguards. Mr Benke Rydmans choreography goes a long way beyond breakdance but it all seemed natural to Mr Wentzel.
The outstanding performances by the soloists were enough to make the premiere a memorable evening, but the 78 amateur dancers of the ensemble also excelled. Mr Benke Rydman gave them inventive choreography and very effectively contrasted small groups of ensemble dancers with moments where the whole ensemble moved as one. The ensemble was essential in the very moving finale.
The set that provided the backdrop was many shades of black, but atmospherically lit by Tobias Hallgren. The staging was versatile, with movements of the set and lighting changes following the changing moods of the music. My only (very small) quibble with the production was that sometimes a wall of powerful lights facing towards the audience was used as the backdrop for Ivan and Nina, the problem being that the lights were so powerful I couldn’t see the dancers.
Henrik Schaefer conducted as sensitively as Mr Benke Rydman choreographed, bringing a beautiful shimmering sound from the orchestra but also rhythmic precision. The drama was heightened by an impressive dynamic range. The audience was spellbound during the performance, erupting into a standing ovation at the end. We were rewarded with an encore where the choreographer joined in the dancing. The run of three performances was already sold out – this stunning and original production simply must be revived and seen by as wide an audience as possible!