At the Firebird Dance Studio on a late Sunday afternoon, men leap across the stage doing a valiant shepherd dance to win the ladies. Their strong, controlled movements seem grounded both on the floor and in midair.
In Russian dance, the gentlemen are very physical and display strength while the girls are dainty pursuits, says Lotta Burton, the owner, artistic director and choreographer at the Mountain View studio.
Moments later, two young boys play a game of tug-of-war with a ballerina. A princess and tin soldier are wound up from their frozen states to dance swiftly. Couples support each other's strenuous dance moves and put their skills to the test while doing elaborate tricks to the sweep of an undulating jump rope.
The dance is familiar yet quirky, drawing influences from folk, modern, ballet and ballroom dance as well as theatre. "All together, it becomes Firebird," Burton says.
In the midst of the loud music and expressive movements, Burton describes the essentials of a Russian fair: clowns, gypsies, dolls and tricks. Her dancers are portraying all of these elements.
"It's a fusion of folk and modern folk to attract both young and old -- kids won't come watch if it's old-fashioned," she says.
The Firebird dance troupe will bring its fusion to the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto this Sunday, May 15, performing at the Russian-American Fair. Now in its 19th year, the fair runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and features Russian food, vodka tasting, art exhibits, children's activities and other dance and theater performances. The Firebird group is scheduled to perform in the Schultz Cultural Hall at 4 p.m.
"A fair has to be entertaining, magical and have a lot of vibe," Burton says. Her violet-colored eyelashes add to the drama as she walks barefoot through the studio in her cool, black linen dress.
Though people may not be able to emulate the dance moves, they will still be able to relate to the performance, Burton says. Love is the theme that ties the dance together. "All we need is love, young or old," she adds.
Burton's mother, Roza Lysaya, founded Firebird in 1991 as the Lysaya Dance School after she came to the United States from the Soviet Union. During the fair's first year at the JCC, 10 dancers from her school performed. Now Firebird has more than 100 students, Burton said.
The Lysaya Dance School had a more traditional folk-dance focus, but when Burton became artistic director in 1999, she brought in influences from around the world. Burton, who studied choreography at the St. Petersburg Institute of Performing Arts in Russia, says, "You can add your own way of expressing it without destroying what was past."
Burton also paid tribute to her mother's love of dance by relaunching the school under a new name. "The name 'Firebird' is a Russian bird character that is characteristically strong, unique and beautiful," she says.
This month, the Firebird studio is marking its 20th anniversary by premiering an original work, "Imaginarium," on May 21 at the Heritage Theatre in Campbell.
Inspiration for the dances to be performed at the JCC fair came during a visit to the Musee Mecanique in San Francisco, where items on display include hand-cranked music boxes and coin-operated pianos. "It was endearing how vintage it is," Burton says. "It's not considered old but cool. There are things that are timeless."
Alisa Robin, a Firebird dancer who has studied under both Burton and her mother, has witnessed the progress of the dance school as both a child and an adult. As one of the first students in the Lysaya Dance School, she's been dancing for 20 years. "I was 7 when I started," she says.
"Rich is how I would describe it," she says of her experience with the school and troupe. "The only other thing I can compare it to is family. It's so close that you feel it in your bones and your blood."
Recently, Robin says, she's been seeing two generations dancing together, with parents bringing their children to the studio where they once took lessons.
As rehearsal at the studio continues on this Sunday afternoon, Burton's partner and rehearsal director, Igor Harea, works alongside her to perfect the dances. Her role is to create and choreograph while his is to make sure the dance moves along smoothly.
"It takes more than two to tango around here," Burton says, noting the importance of teamwork on the floor.
When asked about the difficulties in balancing contemporary dance with that of tradition, Burton says: "It's difficult not to do it. ... I don't want to be frozen in a moment -- when it grows, it changes."
In the midst of magic and tricks, the youngest dancers are reminders of reality. "There's something about having children in your life every day that makes you feel like you've done something worthy. They don't know how to pretend. Everything is true," Burton says.
The 19th Annual Russian-American Fair will be held at Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto on Sunday, May 15, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Firebird dancers are scheduled to perform at 4 p.m. in the Schultz Cultural Arts Hall. Fair admission is free, with art and other items for sale. Dance and theater performances are $5 for adults and $3 for children, with a day pass costing $12/$8. Information is at paloaltojcc.org or by calling 650-223-8700.