Richmond Ballet Presents a Balanchine Classic & an East Coast Premiere

In the Battle of Classic vs Contemporary, Everyone Wins

A Dance Review by Julinda D. Lewis

By: The Richmond Ballet with the Richmond Symphony

At: Dominion Energy Center’s Carpenter Theatre, 600 E. Grace St., RVA 23219

Performances: February 17-19, 2022 at 7:00 PM

Ticket Prices: $25 – $130

Info: (804) 344-0906,, or



Choreography by George Balanchine

Music by Peter Ilyick Tchaikovsky

Staging by Jerri Kumery

Costume Design by Karinska

Lighting Design by Ronald Bates

Lighting Supervision by Joseph R. Walls

World Premiere: March 1, 1935, Adelphi Theatre, NYC

Richmond Ballet Premiere: February 10, 1990, Norfolk Center Theater, Norfolk, VA


Choreography by Ma Cong

Music by Igor Stravinsky

Scenic and Costume Design by Emma Kingsbury

Lighting Design by David Finn

Lighting Supervision by Joseph R. Walls

World Premiere: February 14, 2020, Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, TX

Richmond Ballet Premiere: February 17, 2023, Dominion Energy Center, RVA


FIREBIRD, created by the Richmond Ballet’s Associate Artistic Director Ma Cong, is a magical blend of fairy tale, fantasy, drama, and dream. The ballet is set to Stravinsky’s beautiful score and set in a gorgeous environment that weds the classical with the contemporary. What at first appeared to be a museum – but I later found out was a garden – contained a swing suspended from the above, six life-sized “statues” that turned out to be six enchanted Princes, and a ginormous Faberge egg. Cong has taken the traditional Firebird story ballet – choreographed in 1910 by Michel Fokine for the Ballet Russes – and placed it in a more contemporary setting. 

There is still a hero (Prince Ivan, danced by Khaiyom Khojaev) – and, of course, an evil sorcerer (Koschei the Immortal, danced by Ira White). Cong has kept Fokine’s thirteen princesses, including Prince Ivan’s love interest (Tsarevna, danced by Eri Nishihara), and, of course, the magical Firebird (Cody Beaton). What is new is the context. Nishihara begins as a young woman in a swing, visiting the sculpture garden with her mother (Celeste Gaiera). While reading her favorite book, The Firebird fairy tale, she dozes off, and much like little Clara in The Nutcracker Ballet, finds herself the central figure in a dreamscape filled with magical creatures. Her Prince doubles as a Photographer in the sculpture garden, and instead of party guests, there are museum visitors. A dropped scarf is the talisman that links the two worlds.

Khojaev, the dashing young prince – handsome, lost, and sporting a quiver of bows – encounters the magical, mystical Firebird in an enchanted garden plucking golden apples from a magical tree. In exchange for her life, the Firebird plucks one of her red feathers and presents it to Ivan, to be used in case of an emergency that can only be resolved using magic. The encounter is one of the ballet’s few traditional features – a pas de deux of soaring leaps and spiralling runs marked by Beaton’s fabulously quirky arm movements. They part, and of course it is only a matter of time before Prince Ivan runs into the evil sorcerer Koschei who has enchanted thirteen beautiful princesses and turned to stone the six young princes who have attempted to rescue them.

White, as Koschei, reminds me of an ancient Japanese war lord (but wait, considering that Cong studied Chinese classical dance, let me revise that to an ancient Chinese warrior), and his minions are clad in black body suits with vaguely skeletal imprints on the spines – thoroughly embracing the role of malevolent sycophants as they scamper about the space. The choreography is a refreshing brew of ballet and contemporary movement, a contrast of soaring heights and scampering lows, classic lines and grounded enfolding. A friend likened the results to the subterfuge of The Wizard of Oz.

A battle ensues, requiring Prince Ivan to call upon the Firebird for assistance, and Koschei and the forces of evil are eventually overcome. The climax of the battle, however, involves one of the most explosive special effects I have ever seen in a ballet. Remember that Faberge egg I described earlier – and Ivan’s quiver of arrows? Well, this is where it all comes together. The egg – okay, so maybe not a Faberge egg, but you get the idea – is where Koschei had hidden his evil soul for safekeeping and the climax of the battle involves the destruction of the egg and all the evil it contains. What a stunning concept and even more spectacular execution!

In the final scene, the daughter (Nishihara) awakens, back in the safety and peace of the sculpture garden, where the exchange of the dropped scarf and a pointed glance are all that remain of the events that have just transpired.

The evening started and ended on a high note – with two ballets completely different in style and execution. The program started with a performance of George Balanchine’s Serenade (1934). Historically significant as the first Balanchine ballet created in America and one of the New York City Ballet’s signature works, the ballet began as a lesson in stage technique for student dancers and the choreography even incorporates ordinary rehearsal events, such as a dancer’s fall. But Serenade opens with one of the singularly more stunning moments of stillness ever choreographed.

The curtains parts on a sea of 17 women standing in complete stillness. Each has one arm lifted. When they all move their feet from parallel to an open first position. So simple. So basic. So beautiful. In spite of its simplicity, Serenade is not an easy ballet, and set against Tchaikovsky’s score on a bare stage, save for romantic lighting, it remains a favorite for balletomanes and novices alike.

No disappointments, no complaints. Just a satisfying evening of beautiful ballet and memorable music, played live by the Richmond Symphony, conducted by Erin Freeman. Bravo.


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Author: jdldances

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY and transplanted to Richmond, VA. A retiree from both the New York City and Richmond City Public School systems, she is currently an Adjunct Instructor for the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, and holds the degrees of BS and MA in Dance and Dance Education (New York University), MSEd in Early Childhood Education (Brooklyn College, CUNY), and EdD in Educational Leadership (Regent University). Julinda is the Richmond Site Leader for TEN/The Eagles Network and was formerly the East Region Coordinator for the International Dance Commission and has worked in dance ministry all over the US and abroad (Bahamas, Barbados, Haiti, Jamaica, Kenya, Puerto Rico). She is licensed in dance ministry by the Eagles International Training Institute (2012), and was ordained in dance ministry through Calvary Bible Institute and Seminary, Martinez, GA (2009).

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