This Bird Has Flown

The Houston Ballet's winter mixed repertory is an expensive one. Canadian choreographer James Kudelka's new version of The Firebird cost $450,000 for the physical production alone, requiring the combined resources of the Houston Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada and American Ballet Theatre to bring it to the stage. What did they get for their money? Fifty-eight minutes of elaborate costumes, even fewer minutes of inspired choreography and a design that doesn't quite come together.

At first glance, it seems that the cost of The Firebird might have been worth it. Santo Loquasto's opening set design is stunning. Behind a partial scrim mottled with autumn leaves grows a giant metallic tree trunk that twists up into long, ropey boughs heavy with shriveled golden apples. Next to the tree is an unfinished staircase made from metal and wood and leading up to a scaffold that runs the length of the back wall. The structure looks at once like it might have been left behind by workers putting up the leaves and like it has always been in this clearing, somehow growing next to the tree. This enchanted forest is trapped between the industrial and the natural, the decayed and the living, the modern and the ancient, the practical and the fantastic. It is the perfect Kingdom of Thrice-Nine, where the immortal and soulless Katschei (Nicholas Leschke) has cast his spell, where the mystical Firebird flies.

Stravinsky's score approaches a fever pitch of buzzing strings, and the ballet begins. Unfortunately, so does the disappointment. Lauren Anderson as the Firebird darts awkwardly about the scaffold, fluttering her fingers and flapping her arms like an Odette with clipped wings. And Dominic Walsh's stealthily hunting Prince Ivan is overshadowed by a couple of slapstick warthogs. It's a shame that Kudelka doesn't give these two fine athletic dancers more dynamic choreography to work with -- and perhaps some more nuanced direction. Anderson doesn't seem too upset when the prince finally catches her by her tail feathers. When the Russian ballerina Tamara Karsavina originated the role in Paris in 1910, The Sunday Times raved about her portrayal of "palpitating fear and violated purity." But Anderson plays it more flirtatious than fearful, turning her struggling pas de deux with the prince into a disturbing date-rape scene. She's saying no, but does she mean it?

No matter. The prince has his eye on another woman, Princess Vasilisa, danced by Dawn Scannell, although one wonders what he could have found appealing about her costume, a flouncy, 18th-century panniered dress. This is where Loquasto's design starts to fall apart. It's true that The Firebird is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are not obliged to adhere to any sort of realism. It's also true that The Firebird has undergone many different stylistic interpretations. (Maurice Béjart turned the fairy tale into a political ballet, and John Neumeier treated it as science fiction.) But Loquasto and Kudelka have set the Russian story in pre-Columbian America. The problem: If you didn't read the press release, you wouldn't know it. What appears to be a forest is supposed to be a jungle; the industrial staircases are supposed to be Mayan pyramids. How the prince's ornate Russian costume and the princess's hoop skirt fit into the mishmash is anyone's guess.

As we move from the forest/jungle into Katschei's lair, there are all variety of dancing monsters (or captives? or animals?), three of which look a little like shrimp. The set that was once so beautiful is now ridiculous -- its backdrop awash in green slime and its proscenium a gremlin whose red eyes light up. The monsters dance to exhaustion, led by the Firebird, who has returned to help the prince rescue the princess. Here, Kudelka successfully raises the energy level with a chaotic whirlwind of movement and color. But it's a shame that the most interesting choreography of the ballet is jumbled together, making it sometimes difficult to see.

The final wedding scene is the money shot, so to speak. As armies of dancers dressed in shiny robes and giant headdresses file into rows along the staircase and the entire space glows with a dazzling light, it is clear that the ballet is trying to compete with Hollywood production values. But one is reminded of that old saw: All that glitters is not gold.

Preceding The Firebird on the program is artistic director Ben Stevenson's Five Poems, a ballet inspired by Richard Wagner's "Wesendonck Songs." The much-publicized set design by Medicine Woman Jane Seymour is nothing remarkable -- a watercolor cloudscape by Stevenson's former ballet student. And the ballet itself is not groundbreaking. It was originally choreographed as an exercise for the Houston Ballet Academy. But it has its high points, including a dance for three men and one woman in which the ballerina somersaults about the stage like a wave, her feet never touching the ground.

Five Poems is an ensemble piece, but Barbara Bears steals the show. Partnered beautifully by Phillip Broomhead, she captures the frustrated passion of Wagner's score, languoring in Stevenson's sad and sensual choreography. You can't buy moments like these, not even for $450,000.