Stravinsky work puts Lexington Ballet to another test

Contributing WriterOctober 21, 2011 

In this weekend's Lexington Ballet production of Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird, Lauren Tenney dances the title role, with Evan Pitts as Prince Ivan.

MARK ASHLEY — Mark Ashley

  • IF YOU GO

    Lexington Ballet: 'The Firebird'

    When: 8 p.m. Oct 21-22

    Where: Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, E. Third St. and Elm Tree Ln.

    Tickets: $20, $15 students with ID, $30 VIP. Available by calling (859) 280-2218 or at Lexingtonballet.org.

As artistic director of Lexington Ballet, Luis Dominguez is on fire, his passions burning not just for ballet but for the company and dancers he is charged with leading through the troubled waters of a difficult economy.

Like most arts organizations, the dance troupe has had financial struggles. It has a lot of debt, a restructured board and a lot of sleepless nights ahead, Dominguez says.

"We're looking for a hero," he adds. "We need a champion to be our advocate, to believe in what we are doing in the community."

It's the perfect time to stage The Firebird, Igor Stravinsky's groundbreaking 1910 ballet. In the story, Prince Ivan captures the magical Firebird, who becomes his companion and helper. When the prince falls in love with a beautiful princess, he angers Kashchei, the dark lord of the magical kingdom. With the help of the heroic Firebird, Ivan is able to defeat the evil king and marries his beloved.

The magical creature becomes, in essence, the prince's savior in fighting off forces determined to take him down.

Dominguez and his dancers look tired but determined when they talk about the trials of keeping the company afloat.

Lauren Tenney, who will dance the title role, relates the life of a dancer: "We are in the studio by 9. We rehearse for five or six hours, and then we have just enough time to grab a bite to eat and rush to our second jobs."

The days are long and hard.

"We are professional athletes and artists," says Evan Pitts, who dances the role of Prince Ivan.

Watching him prepare for the pas de deux with Tenney drives the point home. As they dance, the rehearsal studio is filled with the grunts, squeaking shoes and gasps for air that one might expect to hear in the gym during a hard basketball practice, but the observer is hard-pressed to identify which of the faces is the source of all that effort.

"We have to work hard and be beautiful. Our job is to make it look easy," Tenney says, "so people think it is. It's not."

The obstacles can be frustrating, but the company's frustration melts away when the conversation turns to Stravinsky's strange and powerful ballet.

The Russian-American composer's music has been challenging audiences' ears and dancers' hearts for more than a century. Tenney relishes the difficulties the unconventional music presents.

"The accents aren't regular," she says. "The phrases, ... you can't count the steps. You have to feel the music. It is much stronger than traditional ballet music."

Dominguez agrees: "The rhythm is always changing. The dancers have to stay alert and aware. They have to watch one another."

Another challenge is that the piece is relatively short. The Firebird lasts only about 45 minutes. By ballet standards, that isn't very long to tell a story.

"It's not much time to make a statement," says Tenney.

And what is the statement the company is making?

"Beauty," Dominguez says. "The dance connects everything a man or a woman can be. It makes you sublime."

He quotes his mentor, Geoffrey Holder, the legendary choreographer for Dance Theatre of Harlem: "You must dance as if you are going to save someone's life. You will never meet that person, but the dance must be that important to you."

Robert Parks Johnson is a Lexington writer.

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