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Abilities Dance Boston’s ‘The Firebird’ takes flight

Ellice Patterson in dress rehearsal for Abilities Dance Boston's "The Firebird"
Ellice Patterson in dress rehearsal for Abilities Dance Boston's "The Firebird"Mickey West Photography

Mention “The Firebird,” and dance fans may immediately think of the Ballets Russes and Igor Stravinsky’s iconic score. But Abilities Dance Boston has something different in mind with their new version of the ballet, which will be streamed live from Boston’s Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion May 14-15 at 8 p.m.

The artistic team of choreographer Ellice Patterson, who also plays the title role, and composer Andrew Choe have returned to the narrative of the original fairy tale, about a prince and a Firebird rescuing princesses from an evil sorcerer, to create a new and inclusive ballet. Their production has an original score and movement tailored to showcase the strengths of a diverse cast of dancers, some of whom have disabilities.

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Patterson grew up on the story of the magical Firebird and says she always loved the ballet. “But I also saw where a lot of interpretations didn’t include identities or bodies like mine. I wanted to go back to the fairy tale and recreate a ballet that was more inclusive of a variety of our identities and experiences.”

She describes the production as a true collaboration. “Talking and working with folks and understanding their various dance backgrounds and identities and pulling all of these aspects into the work … at the end it’s not just that I have put my own choreography onto their bodies but it is a collaborative process where they see themselves reflected in the work as well as its overarching vision.”

With dancers and other members of the artistic team joining the project from as far away as Georgia and California, the ballet’s creation has largely been a virtual process, with dancers rehearsing remotely before coming together in Boston for final dress rehearsals.

But the challenge is mitigated by the reward, says dancer Zahna Simon, a guest artist from Urban Jazz Dance Company, California’s only Black Deaf-led professional dance troupe. “This experience, the chance to dance in a brand new inclusive interpretation of ‘The Firebird’ — I’ve loved it,” says Simon, who plays the lead princess.

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Choe, Abilities Dance Boston’s music director, had the task of setting aside the familiar music associated with the original ballet and coming up with a brand new score that inspired and supported Patterson’s vision and movement ideas.

The two met around the time Patterson was founding the company in 2017 and Choe was working on his degree in film scoring at Berklee College of Music. “There wasn’t an arts organization like it in the Boston area at the time, and I really resonated with Ellice’s vision and what she wanted for the company,” says Choe. As a dancer with a disability, Patterson “had never really found a platform where she could dance, so she decided to make her own, and I thought that was really great,” he says. Now based in Atlanta, he and Patterson collaborated remotely, with Choe developing initial musical ideas, then adapting as Patterson needed. His work, which he recorded in Atlanta, is scored for cello, viola, flute, clarinet, piano, and electronics.

The new “Firebird” reflects Abilities Dance Boston’s mission to use their art form to promote intersectional disability rights. In addition to performing, the company fosters community engagement projects, such as workshops, conversations, and lectures, and works with organizations to increase disability awareness and accessibility.

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Dress rehearsal for Abilities Dance Boston's "The Firebird"
Dress rehearsal for Abilities Dance Boston's "The Firebird"Mickey West Photography

The upcoming production, which will be filmed and streamed live , will include audio descriptions for blind and low-vision audience members, plus captions and sign language interpretation for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. “We try to be as accessible for our community as we can,” Patterson says, adding that she hopes that approach encourages others “to take a look at their spaces and see where they may not have access.”

Simon adds, “I hope someday it gets to a point where inclusion and accessibility are the norm, where anyone can truly join any dance company and access will automatically be provided for audience members.”

Abilities Dance Boston

May 14-15, 8 p.m., $35-$50

(Free tickets available for those who need them)

www.ticketstripe.com/adbfirebird2021


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.