Ma Cong\'s <em>Firebird</em>

Review: Crash | Firebird | Texas Ballet Theater | Bass Performance Hall

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Texas Ballet Theater brought back Jonathan Watkins' Crash, and premiered Ma Cong's Firebird.

published Friday, February 28, 2020

Photo: Texas Ballet Theater
Jonathan Watkins' Crash


Fort WorthTexas Ballet Theater’s mixed repertoire run kicked off with Crash and Firebird, presented at Bass Performance Hall over Valentine’s weekend. The former, choreographed by Jonathan Watkins, premiered in 2015, and the latter is a world premiere by Ma Cong.

The show is a bit shorter than many other TBT performances (I saw the Saturday matinee) but packs no less punch. Opening the concert is the 25-minute Crash, with music by Dallas-based composer Ryan Cockerham and costumes by Austin-based designer Kari Perkins.

While the piece explores how people react and rebuild from jarring collision, the way it’s structured almost feels like the action switches between the dream world and reality. Watkin’s staging, Cockerham’s music, and Tony Tucci’s lighting design work in beautiful harmony to shift the atmosphere of dance. At times it’s soft and uplifting, then it abruptly moves to dissonant and sharp. While many transitions mimic the jolt of a crash, other morph the action slowly.

The entire cast begins on stage, tightly packed under dim lights and behind a scrim. Electronic and static sounds make up the first part of the music as they slowly move in canon, with their tempo gradually gaining speed. A series of duets display a variety of qualities, from suspenseful to light and quick, then adding more undulating, expansive movements.

Music changes frequently, sometimes with the static-like, ominous electronic sounds, other times with strings, even blending the two for an unsettling mood. With the changes come different partnering, ensembles, and spatial patterns, and the piece delivers one surprise after another.

Watkins frequently has dancers emerge from the upstage black curtain, and when paired with certain lighting effects, it conveys the sense that the dancers are thrust into the action. Tightly synchronized unison segments display power with unity, while canons create a bit more frenzied energy.

Photo: Texas Ballet Theater
Ma Cong's Firebird

Featured duets each deliver a unique flavor, and two especially are most memorable. Alexander Kotelenets and Katelyn Rhodes have a spellbinding quality, while Jiyan Dai and Carolyn Judson display more forceful movements.

Although Crash is captivating overall, Firebird is the highlight of the performance. Tulsa Ballet’s resident choreographer Ma Cong adds a bit more narrative to the early 20th-century ballet (with music by Igor Stravinsky) by setting the meat of the story in a dream world. Emma Kingsbury designs costumes and sets, and David Finn provides lighting design.

The piece opens with a young woman (Alexandra Farber) in a sculpture garden, with people milling about and taking pictures. A giant wall with a cut-out holds a dark, egg-shaped sculpture, while several pedestals hold gray figures. The young woman encounters a photographer (Andre Silva), then sits on a large swing where she falls asleep and enters the world of the book in her hand, The Firebird. Black-clad figures move the statues, which eerily come to life.

A massive tree branch holding golden apples lowers, and Silva enters again. He’s now Prince Ivan in this dream world, which is under the control of Koschei the Immortal (Carl Coomer). Ivan encounters a Firebird (Katelyn Clenaghan) who, in exchange for her life, gives him to the power to summon her when he’s in trouble. She shows him the castle where princes and princesses are under Koschei’s spell, and Ivan is especially taken by one of the princesses, Tsarevna (Farber). After a fight with the minions and Koschei, Ivan summons the Firebird, who helps him defeat the villain. Tsarevna morphs back into the young woman as the dream ends, and she encounters the photographer one last time.

Visually, it’s simple but stunning. A monochromatic palette sharpens the effect of the Firebird and her red-feathered costume. Although there are relatively few set pieces, their large sizes make them seem more opulent, and special effects with the egg structure add some more excitement. Koschei’s costume has some Asian influence in the silhouette, and the sharp edges and bold headpiece make him a formidable villain. He and his minions share a cutout design in their tops, where it appears to be exposed black boning.

It’s not just the costumes that give the minions a peculiar vibe. Their movements are wholly different than that off the rest of the cast. Coomer commands the stage with the theatrical gestures and explosive jumping, and all the others (princes, princesses, Ivan, and Firebird) excel with more traditional ballet vocabulary. The minions, however, sway their heads like snakes, roll and slide on the ground, and maneuver around in a decidedly un-balletic manner. The contrast is fascinating and thrilling.

TBT’s strong technical and performance execution is never in question, and the ballet only reinforces that. Silva’s turns astonish as usual, and the ensemble segments flow with satisfying precision. Farber is a pleasing choice for the innocent young woman and princess, and Clenaghan nails the rapid, delicate bird qualities.

The only downsides are that it ends a little too abruptly, and live music would have made it shine even brighter. Otherwise, it’s an excellent premiere, and I hope TBT brings Cong back.


» Texas Ballet Theater will also perform Crash at the TITAS Unbound Dance Festival, Feb. 28-29 at Moody Performance Hall. TBT performs alongside Bruce Wood Dance, Dallas Black Dance Theater, and B. Moore Dance. Thanks For Reading

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Texas Ballet Theater brought back Jonathan Watkins' Crash, and premiered Ma Cong's Firebird.
by Cheryl Callon

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