THE FILM RETURN OF THE FIREBIRD

 

Andris Liepa, director; Michel Fokine, choreographer; staged by Isabelle Fokine and Andris Liepa. Mosfilm Studios, 116 mins., 35mm color, Dolby Stereo

Balletomanes still think of Andris Liepa as a wonderful dancer whose physique and pure line perfectly complemented that of his former Bolshoi partner, Nina Ananiashvili. The two superstars, who won the hearts of New York ballet lovers during the Bolshoi's 1987 visit to the city, eventually parted ways, but were last seen together in NYC in the Kirov's presentation of the Lavrovsky Romeo and Juliet in 1992. By then, Liepa was a member of the St. Petersburg company, and Nina was a guesting with the troupe. By 1995, when at the Kirov once more visited the Metropolitan Opera, Liepa had begun staging ballets---and even operas for the company. That season, the company presented his acclaimed recreation of the famous Michel Fokine works, Firebird and Scheherazade, along with its earlier production of Les Sylphides (Chopiniana). Injury had sidelined the dancer from the most technically demanding roles in the repertory, but he danced Ivan Tsarevich in Firebird.

Fortunately, Liepa was able to garner enough interest and support for his Fokine project, and with the help of Russia's Parex Bank and other institutions, he was able to film his conception of Petrouchka, Firebird and Scheherazade. It took some time to complete, but the results are gratifying. This extravagantly realized filmic representation of three of Fokine's most famous choreographic works has raised hackles among dance scholars--there's been some quibbling about details, such as how the Golden Slave dies in Scheherazade. But this project had the cooperation of the Michel Fokine Estate Archives and the guidance of Isabelle Fokine, the choreographer's granddaughter and an authority on his works.

At any rate, what Liepa has captured is the spirit of these ballets. (Fokine, a dance reformer, left Russia and achieved fame in Western Europe, where he choreographed for Serge Diaghilev's legendary Ballets Russes. His works were ignored by Soviet authorities, and some--like Scheherazade-- reportedly had never been seen by Bolshoi or Kirov audiences prior to Liepa's production.) Though some of the special effects do not quite come off, the film offers perhaps the most convincing performances of these ballets contemporary and future audiences are ever likely to get.

Petrouchka stars Liepa as a particularly sympathetic puppet clown, his movements suggesting a rag doll that had lost a lot of its stuffing. Tatiana Beletskaya is his beloved Ballerina and Gediminas Taranda his rival, the Blackamoor. Stravinsky's propulsive score explodes in the opening carnival scene--a colorful and eye-filling concatenation of sights and sounds of a St. Petersburg crowd enjoying themselves at a winter fair. The mood darkens with the appearance of the Old Showman, who presents his three marionettes on a makeshift stage and sets them dancing. Later, Petrouchka mourns his lonely condition in his cell which--in this recreation based on Alexandre Benois' sketches, looks like a frozen pond encircled by jagged icebergs; a black sky filled with stars is reflected on the floor. The Ballerina enters but when Petrouchka expresses his love for her, she fails to understand him and leaves. The Blackamoor meanwhile is lounging comfortably in his room-- the decor of which suggests some exotic tropical jungle--obsessively contemplating a coconut. The Ballerina entices him with her dancing, and he embraces her, but they are interrupted by the jealous clown. The angry Blackamoor chases Petrouchka out and their fight spills out of the theater onto the fairgrounds, where the horrified crowd witnesses the Moor stab Petrouchka. As the clown lies dying, his makeup cracks, revealing a human face in tears. When the police arrive however, the Showman assures them Petrouchka is only a rag doll. As the fair disperses and the Showman drags his puppet away, the ghost of Petrouchka appears, defiant, on the roof of the theater.

Ananiashvili takes to the title role of The Firebird as if it were created for her. Having just performed the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, version of the Fokine before the film shooting, she had had the advantage of coaching from those who had kept the choreographer's work alive in England. Her sharp attack with legs and feet and wondrously authoritative port de bras project all the power and magic of the mythical creature she portrays. In highly dramatic makeup and sumptuous red costume, this film captures her in full glory, with breathtaking closeups and intensely commanding full figure poses. Liepa is Ivan Tsarevich, who wanders into the enchanted garden of the magician Kotschei (Sergei Petukhov), where trees bear golden apples. He surprises the Firebird, who has been feasting on the apples, and catches her. The ensuing duet seems more like a flirtation between the Firebird and Ivan--this Firebird knows her allure, and she is not so much frightened as playful with Ivan. When she decides to end their game, she gives him one of her plumes with the promise of protection from the sorcerer.

As night falls, Ivan sees Kotschei's captive Princesses come into the garden to play with the golden apples. He attracts the most beautiful of them (Ekaterina Liepa--Andris' wife, a Kirov ballerina), who tells him to take care, as the magician turns his captives into stone. Ivan falls in love with the Princess and refuses to leave. When he tries to follow the maidens into Kotschei's castle, alarms sound and the sorcerer's army of monsters advance on the Tsarevich.

Here we experience the full wonder of the set and costume designs--recreated from the sketches of Alexander Golovin and Leon Bakst. As an array of fantastical creatures attack Ivan, we are treated to an astounding variety of shapes, colors and textures that make up these horrors. Stravinsky's music too swells to a fever pitch. As Ivan is about to become part of a stone wall where other hapless Princes are already installed, he whips out the magic plume and the Firebird returns. Casting her own spell, she forces Kotschei's ugly lackeys to dance until they fall exhausted. Then she instructs Ivan to retrieve a great egg, knowing the wizard keeps his soul in it. When Ivan hurls the egg to the ground, Kotschei dies, the castle vanishes and the Princesses are freed. A particularly successful scene is one where the stone Princes are shown emerging from their entombment in the wall surrounding the enchanted garden. The fairy tale ends happily with an apotheosis celebrating love and liberty--with all the princely couples arrayed in front of an idyllic Russian city.

Scheherazade, with its sumptuous score by Rimsky-Korsakov, is a superheated dream of harem life as interpreted from the famous A Thousand and One Nights. The title is a bit misleading, since it is the name of the supposed story teller, Scheherazade, and the ballet story itself is the prologue to the tales, relating the cause of the Sultan's disillusionment with women, which places Scheherazade in danger of daily execution. Thus she tells each of her tales without revealing the ending until the next evening.

The film's harem (based on Leon Bakst's original designs) is an opulently carpeted and draped great room, complete with a peacock, where Sultan Sharyar (Liepa) contentedly lolls on a raised divan with his favorite, Zobeide (Ilze Liepa, Andris' sister, a soloist with the Bolshoi). His brother, who suspects that Zobeide is unfaithful, asks Sharyar to pretend to leave for a hunt. No sooner have they left than the women of the harem bribe the Chief Eunuch (Igor Mozzhukhin) with jewels to open the doors to the male slaves. Zobeide chooses the most handsome of them all--the Golden Slave (Victor Yeriomenko)--for herself, and their passionate entwinings become the centerpiece of a sensuously frenzied orgy. Their duet, an adagio of sustained poses, broken from time to time by the Golden Slave's ecstatic jumps around the room, requires sustained tension and dramatic conviction, and the dancers provide these generously. At its climax, Sharyar's unexpected return interrupts the orgy. He orders a massacre, excluding no one. The Golden Slave is slashed to death by his brother, and Zobeide stabs herself, falling at the feet of her unforgiving lord.

Throughout the film, the music is played magnificently by the Bolshoi State Academic Theater Orchestra, conducted by Anatoly Chistiakov. Beautifully cast and wonderfully performed, Liepa has given us a treasure with this trio of ballets. So far, the film has been shown only at festivals in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Riga and last December, at New York ‘s "Dance on Camera ‘97" festival at the Walter Reade Theater. Let's hope an enlightened distributor can be found to make it available to a wider public.