By Jessica Lockhart
Rethinking and performing this beloved classical ballet with dancers who identify as disabled seems to me to be the definition of courageous.
Boston Dance Abilities, Firebird ballet at the Boston Wimberly Theater at the Calderwood Pavilion, May 14-15.
Abilities Dance Boston, a company whose mission is to challenge the notion of who can dance, has decided to tackle a ballet classic: Igor Stravinsky Fire Bird, which was written for the 1910 Parisian season of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes company. As I started to watch one of the company’s live performances, I realized I could hear a voice describing every detail of what was happening on stage: “Their arms go up, make full circles, them. wrists cross. They leap and move to the right, then to the left. Then I noticed a sign language interpreter in the lower corner of the screen. This made me think: I was not used to such facilities for the disabled, in a dance performance. It was a humbling achievement, and then I thought yes, the arts – and especially ballet, with its rigid training for dancers and its expectations of perfection – now, more than ever, needed to achieve equality. Artists have to let go of their old ways, find new ways of thinking, seeing and playing. Abilities Dance provides a great example of how the arts and culture community can begin to tackle inequality.
Abilities Dance Boston Founder, Executive and Artistic Director Ellice Patterson provided the new choreography for the show (working with the dancers). Fire Bird was inspired by Russian folk traditions. It tells the story of a prince who falls in love with a princess held captive by an evil wizard. A beautiful and mysterious bird helps the prince save his love by cradling the sorcerer in a dance to the death that destroys his power, thus freeing the princess.
In his reimagined production, Patterson took on the role of the Firebird, who is an exotic fantasy figure, neither male nor female. Patterson wore a bright red suit that included red striped forearm crutches, which created a giant wing span. Zahna Simon and Antoine Hunter, guest performers of the Urban Jazz Dance Company of California, performed the roles of the prince and the princess. Hunter is deaf and Simon is an interpreter. Together, they brought the experience of deaf and disabled culture to the show. Patterson’s choreography made a conscious effort to bring the handicaps into the fairy tale. The story has not been changed. According to the program notes, Andrew Choe’s original score follows the story exactly, moving from mystical curiosity to passionate excitement, ultimately culminating in intense struggle and soul-searching.
It was inspiring to watch this performance, which was danced expertly, with deft technical skill. The role of the Evil Queen was performed by Louisa Mann, and the dance corps company included Lauren Sava, Jamie Desser, Leslie Taub, Drew Genova and Bradford Chin. The body dancers played a double role; they were the wicked queen’s assistants as well as the servants who aided the sorcerer – they too danced to the death. When the firebird reappeared on stage – as a transcendent healing image – she wheeled onto the stage. Patterson moved slowly, rolling the chair using his forearm crutches. She slowly stood up from the wheelchair and moved her body around the stage using crutches, doing deep, slow lunges and quick movements with her arms and legs. Janie E. Howland’s set featured a huge feather on stage, a metaphor for the ever-growing phoenix. Provocatively there was a replica of the iconic Boston Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge as well – but it’s upset.
Ibram X. Kendi, professor at Boston University and author, author of the bestseller How to be anti-racist, recently spoke at a graduation ceremony. He asked the graduates a question: do you want to live a courageous life, or do you want to be ruled by fear? His challenge came to my mind while watching this performance by Fire Bird. Rethinking and performing this beloved classical ballet with dancers who identify as disabled seems to me to be the definition of courageous. May a thousand birds of fire flourish.
Jessica lockhart is a member of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Dance Criticism and holds a BA in Communication from the University of Southern Maine. Lockhart is an award-winning freelance journalist with the Maine Association of Broadcasters. Currently, she also works as a program director at WMPG community radio.