‘Firebird’ finery is fit for a Mummer

pennballet-firebird2By Merilyn Jackson

For The Inquirer

Posted June 4, 2003

‘They’re big and gold, and hot and heavy,” Meredith Rainey said after a concert at the Art Museum on a recent Wednesday evening. Rainey, a soloist with the Pennsylvania Ballet, was talking about the costumes by Tony Award-winning designer Santo Loquasto for choreographer James Kudelka’s The Firebird, which will open Friday at the Academy of Music.

One of the troupe’s tallest dancers, Rainey will wear the pleated golden robes and headdress of a petrified knight. “They’re really a Mummer’s dream,” he said, “but hard to dance in.”

Mummers and ballet? In your dreams. But if you sneaked a peek in the ballet’s costume shop at its Broad and Washington headquarters, you might think the 12 blocks to the Mummers Museum down on Two Street isn’t so far. With The Firebird’s 44 headresses, its gusseted, ruched, piped and feathered costumes, the bulbously padded undergarments for some, and the photographic instructions for the elaborate makeup, I’d urge every Fancy Brigade captain to go see this production of the work, if only for inspiration.

Kudelka, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, commissioned longtime collaborator Loquasto to create the fantastical outfits for his newly choreographed Firebird in 2000. The Houston Ballet premiered it in February 2001, but 9/11 scotched the work’s premiere with New York’s American Ballet Theater, making the production by the Pennsylvania Ballet the first East Coast performance. (Lila York’s 2002 Concerto 448 is also on the program.)

The original ballet is almost as old as the 101-year-old Mummers. The Ballets Russes premiered The Firebird in 1910 under Serge Diaghilev, who commissioned Igor Stravinsky to compose this as his first ballet score. Michel Fokine choreographed the story ballet, which is based on several Russian folk tales. The result features Ivan, a hero; Kastchei the Deathless; Vasilisa, a princess; and a magical bird that blazes light. As a favor to Ivan for releasing her, the Firebird helps him find Kastchei’s Death, so he can marry his Vasilisa and free the court of Kastchei’s domination.

Stravinsky, who often drew on folk culture, would probably have loved the Mummers. Kudelka uses the original 43-minute score, not the more familiar 1919 Firebird Suite. This makes for a larger cast that includes assorted major and minor monsters, giving Loquasto a monumental design task.
But Loquasto, who has worked on more than 20 Woody Allen films as well as numerous stage and dance performances, has a seemingly endless palette. “Santo went to Matisse for the colors,” the ponytailed Kudelka said one recent morning, when the sun actually shone through a window. “He drew on pre-Colombian styles for the costumes, and there’s a huge bamboo staircase.”

The costumes had arrived from Canada three weeks before, and it took about seven hours over several days to fit the dancers. No less than four seamstresses were working away on them a week before opening night.

A traditional tutu – those that encircle a dancer’s lower torso horizontally – takes about three weeks to cut and construct the 16 layers of 15-inch wide tulle. Kudelka’s Firebird tutu was made of 18 layers in multi-hued reds touched with gold. At rehearsal, first cast Firebird, Arantxa Ochoa, showed off its dipped front and raised “tail feathers.”

Asked if the shape made her more aerodynamic, she said no. “It is one of the heavier tutus I’ve ever worn.” Still, her leaps had a birdlike ballon.

Earlier, Kudelka stopped second cast Firebird, Riolama Lorenzo, as her arms drifted downwards. “No, no. You’re doing Swan Lake. Firebird is a much smaller bird. Flit, make the movements more crisp.”

Looking out over Broad Street where, rain or shine, the ghosts of a million Mummers ever shimmer, Kudelka said, “Firebird is a fairytale about a bird who lights up a repressed and dreary forest, and so it’s not terribly involving emotionally.” Gazing on King’s brilliantly reflecting torches, he said, “You really need to put this ballet over through spectacle.”

Bring it on Mr. Kudelka. Philadelphians are used to chimera and spectacle. Who knows? Maybe this ballet will inspire a collaboration between two of Philadelphia’s greatest institutions. Wouldn’t you like to see a Russo-pre-Columbian Firebird dance in dem Golden Slippers?

The program, which includes Lila York’s Concerto 88, runs through June 14. For tickets call (215) 893 1999 or online at

RETURN ENGAGEMENT Wei Dance Arts weekend performances are a follow-up to an electrifying 2004 Kimmel Center debut.

Posted: February 15, 2008

The DanceBoom! Festival is on hiatus this year, but dance booms throughout Philly between now and June nevertheless. At least 40 dance events emblazon our stages, from classical ballet to modern dance with roots in European, Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern traditions. It all begins tonight with Shen Wei Dance Arts, which returns to the Kimmel Center after a jaw-dropping debut there in the 2004 Live Arts Festival.

Shen Wei (he always uses both names) was born in 1968 in China’s Hunan province. Trained in Chinese opera traditions, he eventually went on to perform in one of China’s first modern dance troupes, Guangdong Modern Dance Company. He moved to New York in 1994 and by 1999 was forming his own company.

Since 2000, his company has performed a dozen or more concerts in world capitals annually. (Now fully recovered from heart surgery in 1999, he performs regularly with his 13 fellow members, although he is not cast in the Philadelphia program.) In the coming months, he will travel back and forth to Beijing to choreograph the opening ceremonies for the Olympics in August. This follows a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award last year, and a half-dozen other awards, including the coveted Nijinsky medal.

He is so busy that he admits he has not yet taken time to fill in the tax forms to collect his MacArthur Foundation award.

Shen Wei’s dances can be eerie, as in Near the Terrace, or futuristic, as in Folding, both from 2000. In 2005, he revisited his early Chinese opera roots in Second Visit to the Empress without a trace of nostalgia.

Just back from performing in Barcelona, he spoke by phone from New York about how his choreographic concepts evolved.

In 1995, he said, “the Alwin Nikolais Company gave me a fellowship to study” in New York. He found the style of Murray Louis, director of the company since Nikolais’ death, to be difficult, abstract. “I didn’t understand it. But it opened my mind to things I did not see in China. In New York I began to see there was a different concept behind each artist’s work.” Seeing Merce Cunningham’s company was another shock – “I did not know dancers could move so differently, with such clean lines.”

The result of these influences is an uncanny splicing of Eastern disciplines such as butoh and Chinese opera’s gliding steps with release techniques and other Western practices he’s observed since his arrival here.

The linchpin for this new look may be his discovery of what he calls the tripod – a manner of reorienting the body’s center of gravity from a two-footed stance to the possibilities offered by using the arms or torso and head, or even, perhaps, visualizing a third limb as other balancing modes.

So, where Cunningham dancers are often vertical and structured looking, Shen Wei’s are more horizontal, often close to or on the floor and very loose in the torso and limbs, almost watery. Cunningham, now 89, will be in Philadelphia in two weeks with his career-capstone work, Biped. Shen Wei notes that this will offer audiences an excellent chance to compare his concept with Cunningham’s notion of bipedality.

“Yes, in the past you balanced yourself naturally by both legs. If you don’t hold your muscles tight, you lose your balance. As the feather follows the wind, you should not hold your muscles. It is about breath,” he said. “In ballet, muscles rotate your body. Here [in the West], dancers don’t really understand how internal energy makes you move.”

He taught his dancers the deft-looking Chinese opera walk. “In walking, you shift your center a lot,” he explained. “By making smaller steps you don’t move the hips so much.”

His company has yet to tour China. “China is a young country for modern dance. It has grown so fast, people haven’t had time to digest these concepts, to develop culturally while they are developing economically.” But he agreed that perhaps his Olympic choreography will open eyes.

For the Kimmel, he has programed his 2005 Map to Steve Reich’s Desert Music. “His music is so powerful and complex that his minimalism is also maximalism,” Shen Wei said. He was not trying to parallel Reich’s music, but built his choreography from one single movement into four different dimensions, “moving into my own maximalism,” he said.

The 2006 Re- (Part One) completes the program. With Tibetan brass music and chanting, a paper mandala on the floor, and dancers raising their arms hieratically as they destroy it, it is the most spiritual of his works.

His amazing synthesis of advancing technique and merging minimalism with maximalism, East with West and spiritual with political is certainly one of the positive outcomes of globalization. This dance ushers in the Chinese New Year, and perhaps a new era, with a benign, but big, bang.

Returning to BalletX with ideas about nature and nurture

E92A0509-1Bill Herbert

BalletX dancers Francesca Forcella and Richard Villaverde rehearse Nicolo Fonte’s “Beasts.” His piece will have its world premiere Wednesday at the Wilma Theater.

Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer

Posted: Tuesday, November 17, 2015, 3:01 AM

‘This leg must be stretched all the way out. I have to see you struggling to get it all the way,” choreographer Nicolo Fonte insists as he pulls Edgar Anido’s leg up to demonstrate to the rest of the BalletX dancers. Such were the rigorous demands of rehearsal last week – fine-tuning every gesture, every facial expression.

The Brooklyn native retired from dancing 15 years ago, once his now-international choreographic career began to soar. He last worked with BalletX in 2013, when he set Beautiful Decay, his first full-length evening, on the company. For its multigenerational cast, Fonte mused on aging among dancers.

Beasts, his new piece, which has its world premiere Wednesday at the Wilma Theater, also is based on an unusual concept for a ballet.

“The initial premise was the sociological debate of nature vs. nurture,” he said after wolfing down a sandwich during a rehearsal break at the Performance Garage. “Of course, we know this notion has been around for 150 years and is now a bit outdated. We know now that human characteristics are a combination of both – a combination of biology and environmental elements.

“Originally, when I was thinking of that in terms of the ballet, I saw a neatly packaged binary vision – one act is the nature act, one act is the nurture act. But in the very first week, I was very tense. It wasn’t happening naturally for me, and I started to let that go. It became a process for me, since I know the sociological debate is outdated, and I sort of adopted the same attitude, recognizing that there is animal instinct within us. So the piece started to become something about what is animal instinct. That’s how the title Beasts came about. It’s an imaginative use of the word. You’re not going to see anyone in monkey suits.”

But, I point out, there is some beastly movement, in particular one in which two dancers bend from the waist and place their heads next to each other, arms overlapped, looking like four-legged creatures.
“Yes,” Fonte said, “so primarily I let that binary vision go. The rigidity is gone, but in my mind, the first act is still the nature act, and in that act you see it even more, a lot of crawling around, very primordial, a lot of that primal exploration.”

There is an intermission – “sort of a theatrical device that I like. I used it in Beautiful Decay, as well. We’ll do a scene change,” he said, “so it’s really logistical.”
Mimi Lien, who just won a MacArthur fellowship and did the set for Beautiful Decay, is designing this set, as well. Lien’s architectural sets are best known locally because of Pig Iron’s devised production of Love Unpunished, in which she used empty staircases; Pig Iron’s Welcome to Yuba City; and her set for BalletX founder Matthew Neenan’s Carmina Burana, which he choreographed for the Pennsylvania Ballet.

But Fonte declines to describe Lien’s set for Beasts. “It’s really special. So let’s let that be a total surprise.”
Is Martha Chamberlain, who designed the costumes for his gorgeous Grace Action, which was premiered in June by the Pennsylvania Ballet, doing these?

“No,” Fonte said. “This time I’m working with Christine Darch,” a much-in-demand designer for companies around the country. It took them a while to come to an agreement on what the costumes should be, he said, but “I think we’ve got something really good now.”
In the last two of his Philadelphia-premiered pieces, the choreographer used Vivaldi and Philip Glass, but also the ambient music of Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds, whom he uses again for Beasts – among others.

“It’s a collage,” he said, “I think I’m using about eight or nine different composers, not sure. But I was looking for music that was going to serve the idea of the savage beast, and a complete score wouldn’t have worked for this idea. For the first part, I’m using a lot of club music by Henrik Schwarz, but the Tokyo Chamber Orchestra did an orchestral version I liked. You can hear a little bit of the club sound, but it’s highly orchestrated. Part of it, to me, sounds like the birth of time.”

Fonte has an easy camaraderie with this group, even though only five of the roster from Beautiful Decay remain. “We’re in week six of rehearsals, but the newer dancers climbed on board with me very quickly.”
Back in rehearsal, Daniel Mayo is pulling his foot against his thigh and grimacing. “Danny, you’re having some emotional problem?” Fonte asks. ” ‘Cause that is no concern of mine.”

Everyone laughs, but he’s all business, turning to an assistant. “Cue the music, please.”

Wednesday through Sunday at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.
Tickets: $22-$45.
Information: 215-546-7824 or

Rootin’ Teuton

German choreographer to unleash white mice and plastic whale in $2 million Deutsch dance extravaganza

By Merilyn Jackson Thursday, Oct 17 1996

German choreographer Pina Bausch came to our own Arizona desert several times looking for material for her latest work, Nur Du, whose Arizona premiere is Thursday night at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. Translated into German from the 1955 Platters hit “Only You,” the title song, one of 34 blues, pop and underground songs in the show, closes the first act of the three-and-a-half-hour, $2 million dance-theatre work. It was jointly commissioned by four American universities: Arizona State University, University of California at Berkeley, the Center for the Performing Arts at the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Nur Du, like other performances by Bausch’s troupe, Tanztheater Wuppertal, promises to be an outlandish spectacle. A sort of homage to the American West, the production deploys 28 dancers; seven full-size redwood-tree replicas weighing eight tons; 2,300 gallons of leaves; a fiber-glass whale; 1,500 pounds of costumes; 300 pounds of shoes; and four live white mice.

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