In Russian folklore, the firebird is a magical creature whose flaming appearance can signify great change, a bringer of both blessings and doom, to those who encounter it. Stravinsky’s “Firebird” is therefore a somewhat unexpectedly fitting work for upcoming performances by the Atlanta Ballet at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre this weekend.
News broke late last week that turbulent changes are afoot at the ballet. At the end of the season, 13 dancers, nearly half the company, will depart.
John McFall, the Atlanta Ballet’s popular and personable artistic director for more than 20 years, retired at the end of the 2015-16 season. The company replaced McFall, known for his keen interest in developing new choreographic voices and his attention to the individual artistic personalities of his dancers, with Gennadi Nedvigin, a dancer from the San Francisco Ballet who trained at the famously rigorous Bolshoi School, known for his technical precision and adherence to the finer points of classical training.
For many of the dancers, the change in leadership has turned out not to be a match. As Nedvigin’s first season as artistic director begins to draw to a close, two apprentices and six company members will not have their contracts renewed for the 2017-18 season, and five company members are leaving by choice.
Such sweeping changes in personnel are not totally unusual as a new artistic director arrives at a ballet company, but the changes, even if not entirely unexpected, are still deeply felt in a close-knit group like the Atlanta Ballet. The company is much smaller than most major ballet companies, and there are no ranks between the dancers as there are in many companies. Many of the departing dancers have been with the Atlanta Ballet for years, in some cases decades, and some have become among the most high-profile dancers in the company, having memorably performed in lead roles over the years.
Still, for now, and for the rest of the season, the company remains intact and all the dancers still under contract. The emphasis in the studio remains on getting “Firebird” into flight.
“It’s part of my job to manage dancers regardless of what the situation is,” says Roman Rykine, a ballet master who arrived at the company with Nedvigin and who says he shares the vision and aesthetic of the new artistic director. Rykine has been working with the dancers in the studio on a daily basis to prepare “Firebird” for performances April 14-16. “Right now, I do understand that a lot of the dancers are going through a difficult time. All of the dancers understand that they are professionals, that we have to put a show on stage regardless of how they feel inside.”
“It’s been emotional for sure, so you try to listen to what your body is telling you,” says dancer Jackie Nash, who is dancing the lead role of the Firebird and who will stay with the company next season. “You’re still going to have sore muscles. You’re still going to have tight tendons and ligaments. Right now, I’m just trying to keep myself as healthy as possible. That’s really my No. 1 goal, just trying to stay in tune with what my body needs, the exercises I need to be doing. That’s where I find myself.”
The Atlanta Ballet’s production of “Firebird” sets the classically based movement of contemporary choreographer Yuri Possokhov to Igor Stravinsky’s 1945 version of his classic 1910 ballet score. In Possokhov’s version of the story ballet, as in the original, Ivan, a simple youth with a noble heart, uses the help of the Firebird to rescue 13 princesses from the evil demon Kastchei, who has hidden his soul in an egg so he can remain immortal.
Stravinsky’s modern score, which is full of a wide variety of moods and tempos, is notoriously challenging for musicians and dancers alike. Nash says that Possokhov’s style, which combines classical language with contemporary movement, proved to be helpful in approaching the work. “The way the steps are crafted around the music makes the music a lot more approachable,” Nash says. “I’d listened to the music, and I was like ‘Oh, my God.’ But Yuri knew the music really well, and it’s just a natural fit.”
Atlanta Ballet guest conductor Beatrice Jona Affron says that if you’ve only heard Stravinsky’s “Firebird” on a recording or in a concert hall, then you haven’t really experienced the piece the way it was originally intended.
“Stravinsky was such a brilliant composer that it’s still hugely enjoyable to listen to his music at a concert,” she says. “But if you haven’t heard ‘Firebird’ and seen it on stage at the same time, it’s a very different experience. Anyone who likes this music should really treat themselves.”
The program for the upcoming performances also includes “Allegro Brillante” by George Balanchine and “Petite Mort” by Jiří Kylián, neither of which will include live music.
The company that’s headed to the Cobb Energy Centre this weekend is a very different one from what audiences will encounter when the 2017-18 season begins. Auditions are already underway for replacements, and next season, there will be many new faces, new styles, new personalities and new approaches.
But for now the show — and the Firebird — must go on. “Next year will definitely be more telling,” Nash says about the road ahead. “It’s about assessing why you got into the type of dancing you got into, getting back in touch with those original roots. I think a lot of people are reassessing what their original passion is. … A lot of my friends are still here now, so I might have a completely different answer next year: But I still find joy in the studio.”
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