[Scene Magazine] Taming ‘The Firebird’
Esteemed choreographer William Soleau premieres his original choreography for Igor Stravinsky’s eminent ballet ‘The Firebird’
By Joe Hansen, News-Press Correspondent
Today it’s difficult to imagine the world of ballet without Igor Stravinsky.
But prior to the evening of June 25, 1910, Stravinsky was just an unknown 27-year-old composer. That was before “The Firebird.”
The nearly hour-long ballet famously propelled Stravinsky to renown — he would pen “Petrushka” and the Earth-shattering “Rite of Spring” in the next two years — and Stravinsky’s musical genius became a boon for a long list of gifted choreographers who left their stamp on the ballet, beginning with the original choreographer Michel Fokine.
As esteemed choreographer William Soleau, a man with over 80 ballets on his resume, takes his turn — Mr. Soleau will debut his original “Firebird” choreography in collaboration with the Santa Barbara Symphony and State Street Ballet Saturday — he’s just as interested in paying tribute to the unique history of the piece as leaving his own mark.
“I didn’t do something really outside of the box, it’s a pretty traditional ‘Firebird,’ but with my twist on it,” Mr. Soleau says. “I pay homage to Fokine and Stravinsky, really. There are a couple of moments where I took the original choreography of Fokine and I just grabbed a pose. I like to pay homage to where it came from, so people don’t think there’s no history behind this. There’s a lot of history to it.”
Mr. Soleau’s no stranger to tackling daunting works with impressive history. In 2011 he lent his talents to another State Street Ballet/Santa Barbara Symphony collaboration with “Appalachian Spring,” a work that served as a playground for the great Martha Graham.
But “The Firebird” presented its own challenges.
“To take on Stravinsky is quite daunting, because it’s not that easy to count. With this particular score, Stravinsky was really unbelievable in orchestrating this. It really changed music, actually, with the orchestration and the multi-metered score. So it’s been a challenge,” Mr. Soleau says.
Mr. Soleau hasn’t had to go it alone, though, as he has settled back into the rhythms of a previously successful collaboration — he also worked with Santa Barbara Symphony Music and Artistic Director Nir Kabaretti in “Appalachian Spring,” and the two have once again settled into a comfortable alliance.
“(Kabaretti) is very, very good at working with and conducting for dancers. That’s a whole other talent that you have to have when you’re dealing with tempos. You can’t do your own thing because the dancers are doing the steps,” Mr. Soleau says. “There’s such a good give-and-take with Nir. He’s so amenable, because he knows what it takes to make it work. Not all conductors are.”
The story of “The Firebird” ballet itself is steeped in Russian folklore. The story’s hero, Prince Ivan (performed here by Ryan Camou), enters the realm of the magician Kashchei (Jack Stewart), a villain with a taste for maidens and the ability to turn men to stone. Ivan pursues and captures the shimmering Firebird (Kate Kadow), bending the magical creature to his will when he falls in love with a princess (Leila Drake). State Street Ballet Director Rodney Gustafson will direct.
“They’re great. This is the 14th ballet I’ve done with State Street Ballet,” Mr. Soleau notes. “It’s easy for me to come here and start right away, because I know the situation and I know these dancers so well. I feel very comfortable here. It’s just always a pleasure to work with them, they’re just such a great bunch of people and they’re wonderful dancers. They want to learn, they want to grow; so I want to feed them as much as I can while I’m here.”
Mr. Soleau and company will perform one of Stravinsky’s shorter versions of “The Firebird,” colloquially known as the “Concert Suite,” which the composer originally created for touring acts, which would be useful for choreographers working with smaller symphonies. The shorter composition runs about 30 minutes as opposed to the full-length ballet’s 50 minutes.
“It turned out to be a perfect, sort of concise musical score for choreographers to attack,” Mr. Soleau says.
Indeed “The Firebird,” in many ways, seems to be Stravinsky’s gift to ballet choreographers, symphonies and dancers alike — so much so Mr. Soleau sometimes sounds as if he considers Stravinsky to be just as much of a collaborator as the symphony.
“I love the music so much,” Mr. Soleau says. “Because the music is so well-orchestrated, Stravinsky really tells the story. You just have to close your eyes and you can hear the story unfold in the music.”