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[whitespace] 'Baby Taj' Feathered Friends: Maria Jacobs (the Firebird) and Maximo Califano (Kastchei) star in Dennis Nahat's new take on Stravinsky.

Firebird Rising

Dennis Nahat and Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley remake Stravinsky's 'Firebird'

By Marianne Messina

"ONE LEAP! Two, leap! Three, leap! ... It's off." Artistic director and choreographer Dennis Nahat is calling out "red flash" lighting cues as the Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley dancers run nonstop through his newly choreographed Firebird (set to Igor Stravinsky's famed Firebird Suite). Lighting designer Kenneth Keith sits at Nahat's right, scribbling notes. After months of planning by phone and video tape from his lake Michigan getaway, Keith gets one week to rehearse with the company and even less time to integrate those "best laid plans" with the actual scenic textures, costume colors and theater space. "In Europe you get two weeks," Keith comments. "In America you get two days."

Even the seconds it takes to make that observation are a luxury. "Scrim coming in," Nahat continues, "portcullis in ... blackness." The dancers are not yet dancing in costume, except for those parts of their costumes they need to learn how to dance with—wart hog and alligator head masks and such. Maximo Califano, looking "desirably creepy" (Nahat's description) as the demonic Kastchei, wears his long, billowy black cape. Karen Gabay as the princess Irina wears her thick, blonde thigh-length wig, and stunning Firebird Maria Jacobs wears the fiery bird comb that stretches above her head almost as high as her hands can reach. The bright plume that the Firebird gives Prince Vladimir is particularly reluctant to stay inside Stephane Dalle's loose-fitting practice shirt.

Such are the endless details of a new production. Ever since Diaghilev and Ballet Russe's 1910 version, choreographed by Michel Fokine, the Firebird has been reset by everyone from Balanchine to Béjart, which might make one wonder why Nahat would want to tackle it. "I've seen it a million times, but I've always been dissatisfied," Nahat explains.

His issues stem from the music: "One of the most important musical scores of the 20th century." He adds, "Stravinsky's music tells the story brilliantly, I think, and his imagination has been far superior to what's been on the stage." Nahat believes that Stravinsky scored a thoughtful love story that invariably gets lost. And in Nahat's scenario, the music takes the prince through a personal evolution—not a series of accidents. Accordingly, Nahat has turned the 13 princesses—captured by Kastchei and later to be discovered/rescued by the prince—into 12 maids and one princess. "Usually the prince bows to all of them and says, 'Well, I have my pick here'—it's very chauvinistic." And, according to Nahat, it's not in tune with Stravinsky's score either, always driving him to lament, "Has this production totally missed these notes and what they're crying for?" In Nahat's version, the prince and lone princess are a natural pairing. "[Stravinsky] gives these melodies. And when you hear that moment, when I have the prince and princess look at each other for the first time, there's no other way to go but love." Nahat gets to undo many other things that have sat wrong with him for 30 years, ever since he first decided to reset the Firebird. The characterization of the prince, for example: "He can't be this stumblebum who stumbled into a forest not knowing what he's doing. He walks elegant, he is elegant and he's a prince." (He's also someone a princess can fall in love with.) "And I've created a solo for him that doesn't exist in the ballet anywhere, ever ... a beautiful adagio where he dances with this feather." Held "close to his heart," the feather represents an important life encounter with the Firebird, "this ephemeral object, this bird, this untouchable, ungraspable object."

From there, the prince moves on to human love and marriage. In the name of clarity, Nahat's Firebird drops gratuitous tradition and outmoded metaphor—such as magical apples. "They will fall on the floor and roll in the orchestra pit, which destroys the ballet completely," Nahat rolls his eyes. "We get rid of the apples." And also defying tradition, he puts the maids and princess on pointe: "Karen, with those feet," he quips, "I want to see her on pointe!" And he couldn't wait to remake the spell-casting Kastchei. "He's not some old lech with white whiskers and funny hair," Nahat complains. He's "like a vampire. He never dies. He sucks the blood and life out of everybody. That's how he stays alive." When asked why this year, Nahat answers quickly: "The company." He raves about how Gabay, Dalle, Califano and Jacobs couldn't be any more perfect in their roles. If not for sheer quality or for the new choreography, these few nights of the Firebird will be worth catching just to enjoy creepy monsters in eerie lighting, princes turned to stone, birds and princesses in flying cages and all pandemonium breaking loose under the power of a delicate bird.

The Firebirdand Flemming Flindt's Phaedra will be performed by Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 1:30pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $22-$74. (408.288.2800)

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From the October 5-11, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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