Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Firebird’ showcases cast talent and the artistry of dance
By Adrienne Warber
Grand Rapids Ballet began the 2019-20 Season with a powerful performance of “Firebird” last weekend. Michigan’s only professional ballet company stands out as an art leader that keeps redefining dance as an art form. The show features Yuri Possokhov’s beautiful version of the classic Russian tale of “Firebird,” along with three performances by talented choreographers Penny Saunders, Adam Hougland and Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko that explore the multifaceted creativity of dance. Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Firebird” opened last weekend with four performances on Oct. 18-20, and the company will present one more performance next weekend, Friday, Oct. 25 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre in downtown Grand Rapids.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Firebird’ Offers Something for Everyone
Grand Rapids Ballet’s “Firebird” is a collection of four different performances that showcase the versatility of dance, the inventiveness of four skillful choreographers, and highlight the talent of company’s current cast of dancers. The audience will see classical ballet, neo-classical and contemporary dance in the selections. The show opens with Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko’s delightful “Mozart Symphony,” danced in neo-classical style. The next piece is a blend of classical ballet and contemporary movement in “Again,” choreographed by Grand Rapids Ballet Resident Choreographer Penny Saunders. The third piece is a contemporary movement work, “Cold Virtues,” by Louisville Ballet Resident Choreographer Adam Hougland. The fourth work is the classical ballet title piece, “Firebird,” choreographed by San Francisco Ballet Resident Choreographer Yuri Possokhov. The show features masterful dancing, fine storytelling and great acting skills. The diversity of movement in the show should appeal to all types of dance fans.
James Sofranko’s ‘Mozart Symphony’ Celebrates Music and Movement
Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director James Sofranko both leads the company and contributes his talents to the West Michigan dance community through choreography. Sofranko choreographed the piece, “Mozart Symphony,” for Grand Rapids Ballet to perform in the Festival of the Arts, which premiered on June 6, 2019. The piece is based on an original work that Sofranko created for San Francisco Ballet Trainee Program students in 2016. The cast of 10 dancers, paired in five couples, dance in neo-classical style to music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The choreography is lovely, lively and a tribute to the beauty of Mozart’s music. The dancers gave an outstanding performance that was enjoyable to watch.
Penny Saunder’s ‘Again’ Inspires with a Tribute to Performance
Grand Rapids Ballet Resident Choreographer Penny Saunders created “Again” as a tribute to a dancer’s last performance on stage and the emotional connection to that moment. A Princess Grace Choreographic Fellowship award-winner, Saunders has a special talent for blending classical ballet with contemporary movement in her choreography and bringing out the unique artistry in each dancer. The strong lines of classical ballet blend beautifully with the softer movements of contemporary in her work set to music by Michael Wall. Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Matthew Wenckowski danced with beauty and emotion in “Again” on opening night. The choreography and the dancers’ performance showed the bittersweet emotion of a last dance and the desire to relive it.
Adam Hougland’s ‘Cold Virtues’ Explores Relationships and Human Cruelty
Louisville Ballet Resident Choreographer Adam Hougland is an award-winning choreographer with an inventive voice. His “Cold Virtues” stands out as one of the strongest performances of the show. Hougland was inspired to create “Cold Virtues,” based on the relationships in the movie “Dangerous Liaisons,” to highlight the human ability to manipulate others in relationships and the price of playing such a dangerous game with others’ emotions. The work originally premiered in 2003, performed by the Louisville Ballet. “Cold Virtue” has a 1930s feel with the atmosphere of a smoke-filled club where people meet for drinking, dancing and romantic possibilities. The piece is set to the hauntingly beautiful Philip Glass’ Violin Concerto. Hougland’s choreography is masterful and filled with creative contemporary movement and artistry. There are hints of the popular dances of the 1920s and 1930s in the group dance numbers. The way the couples moved as one created small sculptures of movement. The movement communicated a spectrum of emotions ranging from sensuality and longing to anger and pain. The cast of 14 dancers danced with strong technique and did an excellent job creating the atmosphere and telling the story on opening night. The two lead couples, danced by Alexandra Meister-Upleger, James Cunningham, Emily Reed and Steven Houser, gave outstanding and memorable performances.
‘Firebird’ Sizzles with Beauty and Creativity
The reason the show bears the name of the closing number is apparent from the moment the first scene begins and the audience is transported into the classic Russian fairy tale, “Firebird,” set to music by Igor Stravinsky. San Francisco Resident Choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s “Firebird” is a work of gorgeous classical ballet choreography with a mix of contemporary movement. The work is based on Michael Fokine’s “Firebird.” Possokhov revisited the classic tale choreographed it for the San Francisco Ballet in 2007. Possokhov recreates the tale with choreography that builds each character’s unique identity and communicates their emotions in each scene. His creative choreography makes the monsters and Kaschel more frightening, show the magic of the firebird, and the sweetness of young love between the prince and princess. On opening night, Yuka Oba-Muschiana danced with skillful, beautiful technique and heartfelt emotion. Oba-Muschiana’s dancing brought out the magic of the legendary firebird. Matthew Wenckowski was an excellent Kaschel and both frightened and entertained with his strong character development. Josue Justiz danced with great technique and strong acting skills. He partners both Julia Turner’s princess and Oba-Muschiana’s firebird equally well. Turner did a great job as the princess. She and Justiz created a delightful scene when the prince and princess fall in love. The entire cast gave a strong performance that brought the fairy tale to life.
Grand Rapids Ballet had a highly successful opening weekend performance of “Firebird” and many shows were sold out. West Michigan dance fans won’t want to miss this entertaining show.
‘Firebird’ Ticket Information
Grand Rapids Ballet will perform one more production of “Firebird” this Friday, Oct. 25 at 7:30 pm at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre at 341 Ellsworth Ave. SW, Grand Rapids, MI. To purchase tickets, visit Ticketmaster.com or call the Grand Rapids Ballet Box Office at (616) 454-4771, ext. 10. Learn more information about “Firebird” or Grand Rapids Ballet by visiting their Facebook page.