Where would dance be without risk? Risk-taking is required to progress the form, especially when it comes to ballet.
In recent years, Cincinnati Ballet has taken bold leaps forward by presenting fresh, contemporary works both in their annual New Works studio series and season programs. The Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Adam Hougland continues to play a recognizable role partnering with the company as he delivers the envelope-pushing goods with plenty of choreographic prowess and arresting visual style. (Remember last season’s wildly atmospheric and emotionally intense Mozart’s Requiem?) Hougland is a Juilliard grad who has created works for such celebrated contemporary companies as The Limón Dance Company and Cedar Lake Ensemble. He was named one of Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch” in 2011.
From monsters and magic to men in kilts, boxing boots and mohawks, the world premier of Hougland’s The Firebird promises to dazzle audiences this weekend at the Aronoff Center.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting vehicle filled with creative possibilities for Hougland and his longtime visual collaborator, set- and costume-designer Marion Williams. In 1910, Stravinsky’s modern masterwork was wholly modern and even proved controversial upon its premier.
In addition to the composition’s popularity, The Firebird also represents a well-known and -loved classical ballet suite, originally choreographed by Michel Fokine. The Firebird narrative is based on a classic Russian folk tale of magic and the shifting forces of good and evil, involving a prince, a beautiful, immortal Firebird, monsters, princesses and more.
“It’s interesting to try and find a way to do a little story ballet without it going into that ultra ‘This is ballet’ kind of thing,” Hougland says before a recent rehearsal at the Ballet’s studios.
“I’m happy to have steered clear of that. I’m trying to find my way into storytelling a little bit.”
The costumes and set design led the way. While Hougland and Williams consistently bring contemporary edginess to their typically more abstract works, Hougland says they have always done rather simple costumes similar to what real people would wear. By contrast, Hougland describes his Firebird as “ultra-stylized,” with a nod to ’80s British Punk flair. Yet the duo strives to maintain a sense of humanity even as the ballet’s characters grow larger than life.
“If we can get a sense of what the environment for the piece is and how the costumes are gonna go, it gives me lines to stay inside,” Hougland explains. “It’s really nice to have those design ideas figured out before I get in the studio. Otherwise, you’re just kind of making up steps; you don’t really know where it’s going.”
First came the costumes — wild, bold, sexy costumes, including large-diameter, aluminum cage skirts that also serve as set elements.
“Having the princesses in the cage dresses was probably one of the first costume images we had,” he says. “They have corset tops with all this rope and lacing, so they feel like they’re really strapped in. There’s a lot of cage imagery. I think when we headed that way with them then it took it in a sort of vaguely punky, S&M kind of direction. It’s very over the top, but with the music it’s very fun and there’s a little bit of wittiness, a little bit of playfulness about it.”
Ironically, he says it’s the first time there’s been a tutu in one of his ballets. Still, the costumes function beyond what the dancers wear: They help them experience and connect to their characters.
“We did a costume run-through and all of a sudden the piece took on a life of its own. It just works, I think,” he says.
Is there a risk that the visuals could overshadow the dancing? Hougland acknowledges there’s a danger of going too far, “like a circus-y, Vegas kind of thing. You don’t want to inhibit what people are able to do physically; you still want to see their bodies and lovely lines and not cover them up or weigh them down.”
By all accounts, Hougland’s endlessly inventive choreography and theatrical sense of play has earned him the trust and esteem of the Cincinnati Ballet dancers.
His choreography features sharp, steely and sinister sensuality punctuated by avian arms, airborne exhilaration and birdlike perches on shoulders. There’s a sculptural quality to the intricate partnering. It feels daring, risky and exciting.
Set to Stravinsky’s full groundbreaking score (played live by nearly 60 Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra musicians under the baton of Music Director Maestro Carmon DeLeone), Hougland’s Firebird is a rare bird — lightness and darkness of past and present, with ties to the original works by pushing boundaries all over again.
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