The Arty Semite

Traditional Dance With a Fiery New Spin

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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Andrei Riskin
Firebird dancers perform at the Palo Alto JCC.

The Firebird Dance Theatre dancers soared on stage last month at a benefit performance at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto, Calif., in celebration of the company and school’s 20th anniversary. With a 21-part program featuring Firebird’s signature fusion of modern, folk, lyrical, ballet and ballroom styles, dancers ranging in age from 3 to 26 joyfully honored the memory of founder and original artistic director, Roza Lysaya, who died in a car accident 12 years ago.

“She is unfortunately gone, but the tradition, the legacy is alive,” said Lotta Lysaya Burton, Firebird’s director, of the work her mother did in translating her success as the director of leading dance schools in the Former Soviet Union into a new school which has flourished over the past two decades in Silicon Valley. It was the Palo Alto JCC that provided Roza Lysaya a professional home upon her immigration to the United States, and Firebird has maintained close ties to it even years after having moved into its own studio space in nearby Mountain View.

Part children’s dance recital, part professional-level concert, the performance showcased inventive, complex, and well-executed choreography based on traditional Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian, Moldavian, Argentinean, French, Latin and Gypsy steps. Traditional folk costumes worn by the dancers during many of the numbers helped emphasized the classical approach and folk fundamentals Roza Lysaya meant to instill in her students.

On the other hand, the neon-colored wigs and pounding electric hip-hop beats of many of the pieces served as an exciting counterpoint. “It was important for my mother to keep the classical way of Russian dance in the U.S., and it worked very well,” explained Burton, a graduate of the St. Petersburg Institute of Performing Arts. “I took what she brought and twisted it in a contemporary direction.”

Burton has labeled what has become Firebird’s signature style as “modern folk,” or “contemporary folk.” “It’s important to keep traditions, because it’s a good way for people to communicate their different cultures. But you need to be up-to-date to attract new generations. This need has created a way of dancing and a choreography all its own,” Burton asserted. Judging by the troupe’s positive reception at prestigious venues such as San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts and Montreal’s Place Des Arts, this fusion has proved to be a successful one.

Firebird creates an original full-length production every two years. Its first was an interpretation of “Alice in Wonderland,” and its most recent was a celebration of Jewish and Israeli dance traditions, called “Simcha.” Audiences can look forward to “Imaginarium,” the theater’s 20th anniversary show, which will have its premiere this spring.

Burton opened the JCC performance with “Spectacular,” a number from “Imaginarium,” as a teaser, a means of gauging audience reaction. The number, with its highly creative story, energetic choreography, and eye-popping costumes, lived up to its name. And if it is any indication of what else we can expect from the new show, then we will be in for a big treat.

Watch Firebird Dance Theatre’s ‘Simcha’:


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