Seasoned Ballet West principal dancer Christopher Ruud has big shoes to fill. On Nov. 8-16 at Kingsbury Hall, he’ll revive a role made famous by another dancer nearly 50 years ago. The role is Prince Ivan, the ballet is “The Firebird” and the man whose stamp will forever mark it is Ruud’s father, Tomm.
“This was one of my dad’s signature roles,” he says of Tomm Ruud, who passed away in 1994 at age 50. “I consider it a gift to follow in his footsteps, and hopefully to make some of my own footsteps along the way.”
Ballet West will kick off its 50th anniversary celebration by revisiting founder Willam Christensen’s “The Firebird.” Set to a sparkling Stravinsky score, the production was last performed in 1980.
Two other works will round out the season-opening program: George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” and Jiri Kylian’s “Petit Mort.”
“The Firebird” is based on the Russian folktale of a magical flaming bird whose capture and release by Prince Ivan earns him a magical feather. Should trouble ensue, a simple wave of the feather will bring him aid.
And ensue it does, for not long after the bird flees, Ivan steps into the lair of evil King Kostchei, who has captured beautiful princesses and turned their knightly rescuers into stone. Ivan falls in love with the most beautiful princess, Tsarevna, and vows to free her.
When monstrous figures arrive and Kostchei attempts to turn Ivan to stone, the prince waves the feather. The Firebird appears, lulls Kostchei to sleep and reveals the source of the villain’s power in the form of a massive egg. Ivan breaks the egg, liberates the princesses and their knights, and, of course, marries the Tsarevna.
“The Firebird” is not only part of Ruud’s father’s legacy, but of his mother, Mary Bird, as well.
“One of the pictures that always hung in our home was a photo of my father as Ivan and my mother as the Tsarevna,” says Ruud. His parents met and married while dancing at Ballet West together (then named the Utah Civic Ballet). In 1975, two years before Christopher was born, his father joined the much larger San Francisco Ballet. Their son grew up in San Francisco, where he trained with the company’s ballet school from childhood to age 15.
“To come back to Salt Lake City and eventually dance for Ballet West made sense to me,” Ruud says of his moving to his parents' former home base and making it his own. “To dance the roles that my father danced and pay tribute to this company and ‘Mr. C’ feels like I’ve come full-circle somehow.”
Although highly praised, many of Christensen’s initial aims for “The Firebird” were unrealized due to the constraints of a small, new and underfunded company.
“There were certain things Mr. C envisioned for this production that never came into being,” says Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute, referring to original design concepts that have been dusted off and re-examined in an effort to maintain the integrity of the ballet. Plans reveal opulence in costume and design — not to mention more dancers.
“Now, with our growth and community support, we do have the capacity to make those dreams of pomp and pageantry happen,” says Sklute, hinting at the lavish set and costume designs that Ballet West has in store for audiences. “We feel like this is the best gift we could give our Mr. C,” he says.
Watching old reel-to-reels, poring over notes and calling on sources who danced and taught the choreography like conservators Bruce Caldwell and Bené Arnold were painstaking but important in “The Firebird’s” reconstruction.
Just as essential, however, was the updating of certain technical aspects, since the art form — and the company — has grown.
“We have an amazing group of dancers who can take on any challenge, and the audience loves to see that,” says Sklute.
So, unlike 30 years ago, the majority of women will be en pointe, and several character roles have been transformed into technically challenging roles.
When asked what Tomm Ruud’s reaction would be to today’s spruced-up “Firebird” and present-day Ballet West, Christopher feels confident his dad would be ecstatic.
“I think he’d love this ‘Firebird’ and seeing his son dance as Ivan,” says Ruud, “but I think he’d be equally excited to see the other stuff we’re doing as well — to see the breadth of Ballet West.”
Ruud is also cast in the second piece on the bill: Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort.” A contemporary group number set to a pair of Mozart piano concertos, the ballet is a recent addition to Ballet West’s repertoire.
“Certainly ‘Petite Mort’ will go down in history as one of the great ballets of the day,” says Ruud of the organic, energy-charged ballet that has garnered passionate international attention.
Also on the docket, “Who Cares?” is a Balanchine masterpiece set to plucky Gershwin tunes and featuring Broadway-energized group numbers and romantic duets.
The anniversary celebration will be a major event for Ballet West alumni, who’ve been invited from around the globe to celebrate. More than 100 alums are expected to attend tours of the Capitol Theatre renovation and new dance center, the gala, socials, rehearsal viewings and the opening night performance.
“This company was built on their shoulders,” says Sklute.“We wouldn’t be where we are today without them.”
Of his father’s absence at the festivities, Ruud is saddened. “I know he would have loved to be part of this,” says Ruud. “But I know he’ll be watching.”
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