An Unprecedented ‘Firebird’

Company dancers, Hayla Carmicle and Justin Michael Hogan.

Louisville Ballet offers a new take on an iconic classic

By Remy Sisk

Photos by Sam English

When the Louisville Ballet presents “Stravinsky!” this weekend, it will be much, much more than your typical ballet. The piece features two of composer Igor Stravinsky’s most renowned works: “Rubies” and “Firebird.” While the first, with choreography by George Balanchine, is a bit more traditional, the second is a world premiere of a concept. In its original form, “Firebird” is a whimsical myth replete with princesses and magic, but the Louisville Ballet’s presentation, thanks to co-creators Lucas Jervies and Elizabeth Gadsby, will take this classic story and place it in a much different setting: today’s refugee crisis.

Jervies, choreographer of “Firebird,” had always loved the music, but it wasn’t until he met Gadsby that he started to consider the possibility of bringing it to life. In their first conversations nearly five years ago, the pair discussed keeping the story in that world of mythology but perhaps doing something a little different with it. But when it was commissioned by the Louisville Ballet, the new concept of this “Firebird” began to emerge.

“When we returned our attention to it at the beginning of this year, we started in that mythology world, but I think we just found ourselves in a time and place where it just did not feel relevant,” relates Gadsby, who is also the piece’s scenic and costume designer. “When you are making art, you have to find something in it that speaks to what you want to communicate to an audience about what we’re dealing with today. And that’s how we stepped out of that mythological space and started looking at the images of the things that are happening in the world around us.”

“To break it down,” says Jervies, “our ‘Firebird’ is about a group of displaced people in a world that seems pretty bleak and these children spread joy and hope where there is none.” Indeed, the eponymous character of the Firebird is traditionally portrayed by a woman in a red tutu with a costume evocative of a bird, but in their version, Jervies and Gadsby have made the Firebird instead represented by children.

“You see these images of kids who are just finding whatever they have at hand to play with – it might be a cardboard box or an old bowl, but they’ll find something to play with and they’ll find something to create play and joy from,” Gadsby emphasizes. “And that was something that really struck us when we were thinking about the Firebird as a character or a theme line – what is it we can see in our world and what is it we can see in our situations that has that same kind of quality?”

In telling this story, however, the pair were certain to treat it with the care it deserves. The refugee crisis is a massive global issue, and they were conscious not to exploit that issue but rather present it to viewers in a way that may perhaps yield deeper empathy.

Aubrielle Whitis.

“It’s about watching this impression and understanding it on a more emotional level and being able to connect with the emotional difficulties that these people are going through,” Gadsby affirms. “I think often with new media, the effect of it is to kind of shut yourself down because you’re constantly being hit with things that are really traumatic and really difficult to deal with. And I think this is a way of exploring it that hopefully will allow people to open up and feel compassion and empathy for the things people are going through.”

Louisville Ballet’s “Firebird,” a part of “Stravinsky!” is without question more than a ballet – it is a piece of art that will hopefully inspire its audience on a path of greater discovery to perhaps affect real, global change.

“We’re really used to only seeing this refugee crisis on the news,” Jervies says, “so I guess it’s important to see it in other areas to keep informing you about what’s going on and hopefully inspire you to act somehow or get yourself even more informed.” VT


November 10-11

The Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts