From the very beginning of his time with OBT, Artistic Director Christopher Stowell intended that the company would develop a repertoire of works “to scores written specifically for ballet. For the initial effort in that direction,” he says, “I asked Yuri Possokhov to choreograph Stravinsky’s Firebird in 2004. He felt a bit confined at first. He had never thought of attempting it, and didn’t even like the music much at that point.”
“Yes,” Yuri elaborates, “I want to say I never liked the music before. Now I love it. When you listen to music and say immediately you don’t like it, it doesn’t mean anything. When you know it well, you have the right to say you love it or hate it.” As Yuri’s Firebird developed, he enjoyed having the foundation of the narrative for his choreography.
Says Christopher, “External restrictions can provide helpful parameters.”
During the 2003-04 season, Yuri was still a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet. He had to choreograph Firebird in December of 2003, when he wasn’t performing. Rather than being able to choose his own schedule, he had to work with the dancers he could get on any given day, structured around OBT’s Nutcracker performances. Like many ballet situations, they had to work when they had small windows of opportunity. (As the great choreographer George Balanchine said, “…inspiration, it’s not anything that’s all of a sudden, like a stomach ache. There’s no such thing as inspiration. You have to work.”)
Yuri didn’t have the luxury of being able to show up unprepared; he created the entire Firebird in three weeks. He had gone over and over the music before coming to the studio.
Historian Lynn Garafola has observed that, “Between choreographer and dancers exists a special kind of intimacy. Each gives to the other; each reveals the other; each needs the other to complete himself as an artist.” That special intimacy developed as Firebird evolved.
Susan Gladstone, who was ballet master at the time, described “Yuri’s larger-than-life personality and infectious enthusiasm. He certainly cultivated an environment in which the dancers wanted to push beyond their limits. In turn, inspired by OBT’s dancers, Yuri came up with seemingly impossible steps that, after a few days’ work, became not only possible, but beautiful.”
Paul DeStrooper, who was Ivan in one of the 2004 casts, said “Yuri demands a lot—he’s a dancer and he knows what’s possible. He would say, ‘I want you to do something like this,’ then demonstrate loosely and let you work it out. He gave you time to get it in a comfort zone that’s in the aesthetic he wanted. He’s attuned to the musicality, so you can go with the melody and phrasing of the piece, not only the counts.”
Said Alison Roper, who danced the Firebird in one cast in 2004, “It’s exhilarating to be someone’s creative instrument. Some of Yuri’s movement is narrative of what’s happening in the story, without being mime. In the pas de deux between the Firebird and Ivan, there are ‘toss-lifts,’ like she’s trying to fly away. Yuri would give us something like that and say, ‘Just do, enjoy yourself. Oh, I love that.’”