In Cincinnati Ballet’s upcoming Director’s Cut — which features Stravinsky’s famed The Firebird and The Rite of Spring — something, in particular, stands out. And it’s not just the fact that it’s the first time these two works have been performed on the same bill by the company or that Adam Hougland has choreographed both. No, it’s the role of the lead female characters in each ballet.
“They’re very opposing in spite of all their similarities,” says Melissa Gelfin, a principal dancer, who will dance the titular role of the Firebird.
In 1910, Stravinsky first composed and conceived Firebird; then the riotous Rite of Spring followed with a 1913 premiere. The two ballets — which come to Music Hall March 21 through 24 — share some of Stravinsky’s patented ominous strings and strident woodwinds, but their stories diverge. The Firebird tells a slightly longer story of a magical firebird and a hunter, Prince Ivan, whom she eventually saves; he later meets princesses under the spell of an evil villain. The Rite of Spring features the “Chosen One” being selected for a ritualistic sacrifice. Both ballets owe their lineage to Russian folk tales.
“It’s very fun and exhausting at the same time because the Chosen One is the one different than everybody else,” says Sirui Liu, principal dancer.
In spite of her character’s inevitable ending, Liu says she performs the role believing that the Chosen One retains some agency — she makes the choice to give up at the end — and that even with the shorter run time, there’s a “certain amount of growth in the character.”
But Firebird’s character arc has a definitive beginning, middle and end; because she’s met with so many challenges, Gelfin says she becomes more mature by the end.
“She’s very fierce,” Gelfin says. “She’s very much her own strong feminist self in her Punk Rock tutu with her mohawk. She’s going to go save the day, she saves the day and then she’s going to go fly and save another day.”
Among the most recorded compositions in the Classical canon, a number of choreographers have taken on The Rite of Spring. Hougland’s choreographic inspiration comes from contemporary figures like Pina Bausch and Jiří Kylián. By necessity, to take on this work is to bring something new to it, and Hougland says he definitely felt the pressure when he first choreographed the work in 2001 for Louisville Ballet.
As envisioned by Hougland, Rite of Spring is a refracted take on the surface-level viewing of ballet as a story of reverence for the earth; his tale takes place in a disconnected subterranean world, devoid of anything “human or natural or earthly.”
“They find something that is perfect and beautiful and innocent and fragile, and they just kind of trample it to death,” Hougland says. “(The Chosen One is) just kind of destroyed for being the last breath of anything real.”
By contrast, though not precisely a brighter work, he says Firebird has more sparkle, punch and sass — though you shouldn’t compare the ballets all evening.
“You don’t choreograph things like that with the intention of them living together,” Hougland says.
Marion Williams is set and costume designer for both ballets. Rite of Spring is harsher, darker, more blue-toned and features the Chosen One in a cream-colored slip; Firebird is brighter and more colorful and the Firebird dons a plaid tutu and magenta makeup. The contrasts may continue, but choreographically, Hougland’s style remains consistent.
“There are a million and one moments where you have to feel weight in your arms, weight in your legs, and use the whole breadth of the movement, which is very Adam,” Gelfin says. “That water quality; he has those long limbs and weighted movements from floor to ceiling. It’s very prevalent still in Firebird.”
And Liu agrees, adding that Hougland says to be wild.
“He keeps talking about gravity,” she says. “My hair is down, too, so I need to deal with how to keep my hair in the back and be able to dance the crazy movement but still find the details like timing, quality, for the movement...it is very close to human. That’s part of the acting, too. Instead of acting, sometimes I just have to be myself, not a dancer. Just a normal person.”
Cincinnati Ballet presents Director’s Cut: The Firebird + Rite of Spring, with performances March 21-24 at Music Hall, 1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine. More info: cballet.org.