Split Personality

Eugene Ballet’s new Firebird sets traditional Slavic myth in dark, dystopian future

When Suzanne Haag was asked to choreograph a new production of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird for Eugene Ballet Company this season, she was given one prime directive: Make it different.

The Firebird has special resonance for EBC. When the Hult Center opened in Eugene in 1982, the then-fledgling dance company put on a traditional Firebird, choreographed by the company’s co-founder Toni Pimble.

Four decades later, Haag — who is poised to become one of two co-artistic directors of Eugene Ballet when Pimble retires in five years — has deconstructed the traditional story, which is based on a Slavic folk tale about a bird with magic powers, and rebuilt it around her own dystopian vision.

The whole thing will play out in two Hult Center performances this weekend, April 13-14, on a futuristic industrial set that’s about as far from the taiga as you could imagine.

Most remarkable, though, is that the Firebird itself — a character usually portrayed by a female dancer — is created, in Haag’s vision, by three dancers at the same time, two men and a woman.

“I think trios are choreographically very interesting,” Haag says. “So when I was thinking about changing the Firebird character from one female, my first thought was one male — and then my next thought was a group. And then I thought too many people would be tricky to get them coordinated to create one vision of a bird.”

She continues: “Working with a trio in ballet is always challenging, but very interesting. I’ve done trios with three male dancers in short parts of bigger works. But having this group always working as a trio is new to me.”

The three dancers — EBC principals Hirofumi Kitazume and Yuki Beppu, and company dancer Yamil Maldonado — are always together to portray the Firebird, with the men on the outside, suggesting wings, and the woman between them.

The set may look familiar to Eugene music fans; designed by Nadya Geras-Carson, it was built for Eugene Opera’s 2007 production of The Magic Flute. Haag said it’s been reworked to eliminate the large balconies the opera used for its chorus, giving her dancers more space on the Silva Concert Hall stage.

Speaking of space, Stravinsky’s score to Firebird will be performed live by OrchestraNext, the student-professional orchestra conducted by Brian McWhorter that has been playing live music for the ballet’s holiday Nutcracker performances in recent years. The score requires a large orchestra — more than 60 players, including three harps — which is a lot of musicians to fit into the Silva pit.

The modernist score presents its own challenges to the dancers and their choreographer.

“Stravinsky’s music is infamously challenging to choreograph because he changes meter very frequently,” Haag says. “It just takes a little bit longer, in terms of rehearsing, to make sure that everybody is hearing the music the same way.”

Haag has been choreographing dancers for years, but Firebird marks a major leap for her. “It’s the longest ballet I’ve ever created,” she says. “It’s been an amazing, amazing learning experience.” 

Eugene Ballet’s The Firebird will be performed at 7:30 pm Saturday, April 13, and at 2:30 pm Sunday, April 14, at the Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall. Tickets are $30-$60, $15 youths and college students, at EugeneBallet.org.

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