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In 'Stravinsky,' Louisville Ballet Revisits Classics With A Modern Lens

Erica Peterson

Choreographer Lucas Jervies is back in town.

If you’re a subscriber to the Louisville Ballet, you probably saw the world premiere of "Human Abstract" last April, a ballet that was co-conceived with the seven dancers in the cast.  "Human Abstract" may have shifted your definitions of what constitutes ballet, with its inclusion of spoken word, singing, piano playing, lip-syncing and other conventions that are not typically included in “ballet.”

This time, Louisville Ballet resident choreographer Jervies is choreographing "The Firebird" – one of two parts of the company’s season-opening program, "Stravinsky," Nov. 10 and 11 at The Whitney Hall, Kentucky Center for the Arts. The second part is choreographer George Balanchine’s "Rubies," a movement from his acclaimed "Jewels," also set to music by Stravinsky.

Jervies has yet to ‘just’ re-stage a classic (though his next project for the Australian Ballet Company might change his track record.) He is much more interested in revisiting the original through the lens of what is happening in the world around us now, and then distilling core themes from the original and reshaping the story and choreography accordingly.

When he and Robert Curran, artistic and executive producer of Louisville Ballet, began talking about what this deconstruction of "The Firebird" might look like, Jervies knew that he wanted to work with Australian collaborator Elizabeth Gadsby.

“I can’t do it without Elizabeth,” he said. Thus Gadsby makes her Louisville debut with this production. Like many of the other artists whom Curran has hired recently, Gadsby began her career as a visual artist before turning to theatrical design.

According to Jervies, Gadsby was instrumental in settling in on this version of The Firebird's themes of human displacement, including the current worldwide refugee crises and other displacements throughout history. This journey led them to such disparate sources as video records of the Holocaust and images of Ai Weiwei’s art installation at a refugee fundraiser in Berlin.

In the original "The Firebird," the forces of good and evil contend in different ways than in this deconstructed version. But according to Jervies, Stravinsky’s music holds those key themes, allowing him and his collaborators to set a new interpretation to the music and these core ideas. These themes and ideas bring an art form frequently identified as ‘ivory tower’ into a very real conjunction with the world around us. That’s highlighted by a Louisville Ballet partnership with Kentucky Refugee Ministries, too: there’s a joint fundraiser for the two non-profits on opening night, finding ways for different sectors of our community to find common ground.

Unlike with "Human Abstract," Jervies is setting choreography on the dancers in the studio.  And it’s a large undertaking. There are 41 dancers – the full company and the trainee company – as well as nine students from the Louisville Ballet School.

It is in these nine youngest dancers that Jervies locates the hope for the future of humanity. In this production “the kids are our Firebird,” he said. In the original ballet, the Firebird saved the hero from the evil magician.

The common thread between "The Firebird" and "Rubies" is, of course, Stravinsky. But there are some global connectors, too. Both ballets were created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a period of ballet history and creativity to which both Curran and Jervies are drawn.

Balanchine, choreographer of "Jewels" (which includes "Rubies,") began his choreographic career with the Ballets Russes before establishing himself in the U.S. Stravinsky composed music for many of the Ballets Russes pieces, and Diaghilev drew around him artists of every genre, initially many of them Russians displaced during the political unrest in Russia that led to the Revolution in 1917.

A hundred years later, we are recreating a ballet which came from this period of artistic innovation and upheaval and restaging a mid-20th century classic through the diligence of the Balanchine Trust whose mission is to honor and sustain Balanchine’s legacy.

Curran’s goal of performing a Balanchine ballet every season grounds Louisville Ballet in the tradition of American neo-classical ballet. His commitment to new works, in the tradition of Diaghilev, looks to the future vibrancy and relevance of ballet.

Additionally Curran, too, is curating a wide range of artists of all genres to work with Louisville Ballet, expanding what the concept of ‘design’ for ballet can be and playing with the constructed boundaries between ‘theater’ and ‘dance,’ just as the Ballets Russes did during its brief sparkling life.