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[Please pardon the tardiness of this review. I was waiting on a cast confirmation.]

This month, Festival Ballet Theatre showed great promise for their 2019-2020 season with a presentation of their fall ballet – The Firebird – and three charming Ballet Russes. [Unfortunately, Ms. Sophia Bovet Johncox was not able to dance due to an injury. We at The Joyous Living wish her a speedy healing and recovery.] Principal dancer, Tara Ghassemieh Luiz, impressively stepped into the pointe shoes of The Princess and rounded out the main cast that included Moorea Pike as The Firebird, Vitor Luiz (formerly a principal dancer of San Francisco Ballet) as The Prince and UCI graduate Greyson Hanson as The Wicked Magician.

Three Cheers for the Trainees at Festival Ballet Theatre

Since The Firebird is a one-act ballet, we as an audience had the pleasure of getting a chance to preview the talent of Festival Ballet Theatre’s company (including many young ballerinas from the Southland Ballet Company). I was very impressed by the talent of the young ladies who could easily have been mistaken for members of the company. In fact, Sami Santos (stepping in last minute for Sophia Johncox), Bella Do and Anjoulie Kempton might have outshone their talented partner, Toleu Mukanov, in the excerpt from Chopiniana choreographed by Mikhail Fokine and restaged by Yuri Fateev.

Bella Do, Anjoulie Kempton, and Sami Santos returned to the stage in Cesare Pugni‘s Frescoes (Choreographed by Marius Petipa) with Ashley Chung filling in for Sophia Johncox. Wearing some beautiful costumes, the young apprentices made their movements look effortless as they twirled and pirouetted with grace, elegance and impressive stamina.

On an exciting note, Santos and Do will be alternating the role of Clara in The Nutcracker with Sophia Johncox in December.

Tara Ghassemieh Luiz & Vitor Luiz

The second of the Russian dances to Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov‘ Scheherazade was a treat for the senses being choreographed by AND performed by Festival Ballet Theatre’s Company Dancers, Tara Ghassemieh Luiz & Vitor Luiz. The grace, the extensions, the chemistry and the brilliant use of a prop (Scheherazade’s scarf) were a sumptuous preview of what we were in store for during the second act The Firebird although as an audience we were not aware yet that Tara would be filling in as The Princess as there was no cast announcement in either the program or on stage.

Lucky attendees will be able to see the two dancers featured in The Nutcracker together on December 7, 8 and 22nd (6 pm performance) with Vitor Luiz also dancing opposite former San Francisco Ballet’s Maria Kochetkova on December 20, 21, and 22nd (1 pm performance).

The Firebird at Festival Ballet Theatre

Intermission seemed to drag as we eagerly awaited the anticipated second act ballet, The Firebird, with choreography by Nikolai Kabaniaev and a lush recorded soundtrack of Igor Stravinsky‘s composition.

But we were not to be disappointed!

Apprentice Moorea Pike (who received scholarships to Houston Ballet Academy and Princess Grace Academy in Monaco) in the titular role looked stunning in a red costume by Cyndee Ely and Heather Lerma as she captivated the audience with her bird-like movements and especially in her partnering with Vitor Luiz (The Prince).

But the real stars of the ballet were the above mentioned Tara Ghassemieh Luiz & Vitor Luiz who dazzled as The Princess and Prince. I could not take my eyes off either dancer whether it was a group piece or solo work they were performing. The gorgeous and simplistic gowns Tara and her young princesses were dressed in did not hurt the eyes either.

But if I had to put a finger on what made their performances exceptional I would have to give credit to choreographer NIkolai Kabaniaev who drew on his knowledge of Stravinsky’s lush music so he knew just when the perfect moment was for the young lovers to fly and leap through the air with their pirouettes, arabesques and tours en l’air. And he expertly took advantage of the charm and poise of the young trainees from Southland Ballet Academy who comprised the young princesses and showed them out to shine even brighter with his choreography.

Future Performances at Festival Ballet Theatre

Just like how the dancers ended their ballet with the strength of victory, the audience was left delighted and full of excitement for what awaits us for the rest of the 2019-2020 season at Festival Ballet Theatre. All performances are likewise at the intimate Irvine Barclay Theatre. An optional tea party before The Nutcracker is available for purchase with appearances by Clara and select cast members.

The Nutcracker

7-24 December 2019

This full-length traditional production is choreographed and directed by Festival Ballet Theatre’s Artistic Director, Salwa Rizkalla, and features world-renowned guest artists, FBT’s professional company dancers, and exceptional young talent from across the Southland.


Tara Ghassemieh Luiz & Vitor Luiz (December 7, 8 and 22 at 6 pm)

Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell (Ballet West) (December 13,14, and 15)
Maria Kochetkova and Vitor Luiz (formerly of the San Francisco Ballet) (December 20, 21 and 22 at 1 pm)
Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez (Joffrey Ballet) (December 23, 24)
Sophia Johncox, Bella Do and Sami Santos as Clara.


Swan Lake

21 – 22 March 2020
This beloved classical ballet is choreographed by Artistic Director Salwa Rizkalla, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and features world-renowned guest artists in the lead roles.
The Joyous Living: Festival Ballet Theatre's The Firebird Ignited Excitement for the 2019-2020 Season at The Irvine Barclay Theatre

Accessibility at The Festival Ballet Theatre

The theatre has accessible seating available for those with mobility impairments and listening devices to amplify stage sound for those hard of hearing. Also, a big thank you to UCI for the FREE parking in their UCI parking structure for those with Disabled Placards.
Disclaimer: I received my tickets for review purposes but all opinions are my own.