The Firebird

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Nina Ananiashvili soaring in a grand jete



In February 1909, Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872 - 1929) had the opportunity to hear two short, but brilliant, orchestral works by the young composer Igor Stravinsky (1882 - 1971), at a concert in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Impressed by the promising composer, Diaghilev, the incomparable impresario of the Ballets Russes, commissioned some arrangements for his summer 1909 season in Paris.

For the 1910 season he commissioned a new musical score for a complete ballet, The Firebird. Diaghilev was a great talent scout and a visionary who promoted collaboration between the arts. He founded the Ballets Russes in 1909, gathering an admirable collection of talents, from Picasso to Debussy and Cocteau *.

The choreography was entrusted to Michel Fokine (1880 - 1942), of Russian origin, who was also the author of the libretto, drawn from a Russian fable.

Young prince Ivan finds himself in the terrible realm of the giant Kashchei, the immortal entity of pure evil, who imprisons women and transforms men into stone. Not realising the danger, Ivan rambles through the bewitched garden of Kashchei where he meets a dazzling Firebird. Struck by the Firebird’s beauty, he steals one of its feathers and runs away.

That evening he encounters 13 maidens, and falls passionately in love with one of them. The next morning, when the maidens, Kashchei’s prisoners, are compelled by magic to return to his castle, Ivan follows them.

The apparition of the Firebird, interpreted by Nina Ananiashvili.



Kashchei's monstrous servants capture him, and are about to transform him into stone. He waves the magical feather that summons the Firebird, who tells him the secret of Kashchei’s immortality: his spirit in the form of an egg that he keeps in coffer, must remain intact.

Ivan opens the coffer and breaks the egg; the monster dies, its magic is dissolved, and all those who he had captured are freed. The maiden Ivan loves, princess Tsarevna, and the prince marry.

Fokine had begun its career working in a renewed classical style (Les Silfides, the Death of the Swan). Later on he was influenced by the free dance of the great American dancer Isadora Duncan (1877 - 1927).

Duncan searched for a new style of dance far from the academic style, in which free and fluid movements, inspired by natural phenomena like the sea or the wind, express emotion. She was attracted by the ancient Greek ideals of beauty and danced barefoot, with flowing hair, dressed in a tunic like those painted on ancient Greek urns.

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With the Firebird a new style emerges, free from classicism, free in movement, in the use of the stage, in the duration (short compared to the great classical ballets). Fokine refused the formal symmetry of the classical ballet, because he found it detrimental to drama; he crafts less rigid and artificial groups, transforming them from artifice and ornament into a powerful dramatic force.

Vigorous style and athletic steps, typical of Russian folkloristic dances, were incorporated throughout the choreography. This was an important innovation: in the ballets of the 1800’s they were relegated to the “character” interludes, generally set apart from the main plot of the ballet.

The musical score is the fruit of a relationship of close collaboration between Fokine and Stravinsky, produced after long and detailed discussions. From the first representation in the summer of 1910, the Firebird has been an incredible success. Stravinsky won instant fame, celebrated as one of the greatest composers for the ballet.

In the 20th century, music has gradually become more important in ballet, becoming as important as the choreography; in 19th century it was little more than an embellishment and a rhythmic support for movement. The Firebird opened the way towards this renewal.



*Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973) painter and sculptor
Claude Debussy (1862 - 1918) composer
Jean Cocteau (1889 - 1963) poet, writer, director

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