Loughlan Prior’s The Firebird for Royal New Zealand Ballet brings the old story up to date

August 27, 2021

Fokine’s Firebird premiered by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in 1910, brought Igor Stravinsky to world attention. It was the first of his great ballet scores, but as a ballet the best of the dance is at the beginning before spectacle and theatrical display dominate. For the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Loughlan Prior brings the ballet right up-to-date, capturing with sensitivity current environmental concerns. His Firebird tells the story entirely in dance using all the colour and depth that Stravinsky offers from the opening rumbles in the bass, through the lush sensuality to the majestic finale. The RNZB dancers give their all in totally committed performances and POW Studios offer awesome animations and effects.

The scene opens on the slow eclipse of a blazing disc while on stage is a dystopian world of smouldering ash, smoke and drought. The ragged remains of humanity, dressed in shades of leaf mould and mud, are under the ruthless tyranny of The Burnt Mask, Paul Mathews, armed with a vicious curved glaive. Arrow, Harrison James, is no prince but something more worthy, a decent man. Neve, Sara Garbowski, similarly is not a fragile princess but an intelligent strong woman and the Firebird, Ana Gallardo Lobaina, is pure magic, a creature both innocent and all-knowing. She appears in a cloud of brilliant light and pyrotechnic flames and initially dances with a gauze wrap that seems to keep the tongues of flame alive. Her charisma establishes her authority from the get-go and she maintains it quiet or radiant, captured or triumphant to dominate the production.

Ana Gallardo Lobaina as The Firebird in Loughlan Prior’s new ballet
Photo Stephen A’Court

Prior’s choreography draws meaning out of movement most vividly in the pas de deux. The meeting of Arrow and the Firebird is full of sensuous exploration. Lobaina, the only dancer on pointe, maximises the stretch of her limbs enfolding James who is enthralled by her strangeness. The enquiring, birdlike twitch of her head and bright eyes, bring character detail to an impressive technique.

The duet between Garbowski and James is very different, it’s a relationship of equals, man and woman, earthy and very human. Prior proves again, as he did in his Hansel and Gretel, the extraordinary depth he can extract from the commonplace. It is the final pas de deux of Loaina and James, as he consoles the injured bird, that hits the heights; a duet filled with beauty and tinged by adoration and imminent loss. James, a New Zealander, guesting from the National Ballet of Canada, has a challenging role. The peacemaker and nice guy, he scores, not through virtuosity but as defender of the defenceless, a powerful presence and excellent partner. Lobaina gives a magnificent performance neatly balanced between strength and vulnerability.

Amongst the group, aggression simmers below the surface, breaking out in battles over the last drops of water where Prior captures the desperation in choreography that is daring and frighteningly honest. It is the touch of the Firebird’s feather that turns the parched earth to streams of sparking water, an effective video trick that delivers a powerful message regarding the preciousness of earth’s resources. As the water flows, tensions ease and harmony returns, but it is short lived as Burnt Mask and his warriors return with the captured Firebird.

It is Neve who releases Firebird’s chains while the battle rages. The ballet climaxes as the two protagonists are hoisted on high and it is the warrior destroyer who falls. The image of a burning earth is replaced by giant blossoms in a blaze of colour as humanity is reprieved and nature reborn. Firebird, weakened but a survivor, is transported to heaven in a starburst of lights. Rising with Stravinsky’s regal chords, Prior creates a magnificent climax. It is the ultimate prize, the Earth saved from destruction, a victory we hope will be more than just a theatrical illusion. Prior’s Firebird has it all, theatre magic, memorable performances and the most important message of our times.