November 27, 2014

Fairy Tales at the Ballet: The Firebird

I had the privilege of attending my very first professional ballet performance awhile back. As a twenty-first century girl used to being surrounded by stimulating visual entertainment at every turn, I was afraid that I would find the ballet to be a little boring, however much I appreciate the art of the dance. I was so wrong! The ballet was, in a word, enthralling, and I definitely will be attending more in the future.

It didn’t hurt matters that the ballet I saw was The Firebird (Zhar-ptitsa in Russian), a performance based on Russian folktales. 

The Firebird premiered on June 25th, 1910 in Paris, conducted by Gabriel Pierné and choreographed by Michel Fokine.

The iconic music for The Firebird was written by Igor Stravinsky, only 28 years old at the time. The Firebird made him famous, along with two other ballets he wrote for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes: Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.

Not everyone loved Stravinsky’s music. The famous ballerina Anna Pavlova refused the lead role after hearing the score, which she referred to as “noise.” Tamara Karsavina took the role instead.
Firebird, 1910
Firebird, 1910
Firebird, 1910
(Aren’t the costumes just fabulous???)

In the ballet, Price (Tsarevitch) Ivan finds the Firebird in the gardens of Kastcheï the Immortal and proceeds to chase and capture her. In return for her freedom, she bestows upon him one of her feathers, a token that he may use to call upon her for aid if he should ever need it. The Firebird flies away, and a group of nine beautiful maidens come into the garden, picking fruit from trees. At first, Ivan hides, but his attention is captured by the Princess (Tsarevna) who leads them. He falls in love. Surprised at first, she quickly falls in love with him as well.

When dawn comes and the Tsarevna and her maidens return to Kastcheï’s castle, Ivan follows. But as soon as he opens the castle gates, a large group of strange men--passing travelers whom Kastcheï has ensorcelled--rush out into the garden and bow to Kastcheï as he makes his grand entrance. Kastcheï orders his men to attack Ivan and then attempts to cast a magic spell on the prince himself. Ivan pulls out the Firebird’s feather, calling on her for help. She comes and enchants Kastcheï’s enspelled captives, forcing them to dance until they fall to the ground exhausted.

But Kastcheï, using his magic, attacks the Firebird and kills her. As she dies, Ivan finds the magical egg that holds Kastcheï’s soul and dashes it to the ground. The evil magician dies. Ivan and the Tsarevna are free to marry, and the Firebird is reborn.

As I did my research for this post online, I noticed that certain elements of the story change from one production to another, but only very slightly. You may read another version from the website of the Birmingham Royal Ballet here.

No one specific tale provided the basis for the plot of this lovely ballet. The Firebird is a creature that appears in many Russian tales; and the evil magician Kastcheï the Immortal is based on Kastcheï the Deathless, also a recurring figure in Russian folklore.

You can read two of my favorite Firebird tales on the Surlalune website. One is “The Firebird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilia.”  The second is “Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf.” 

Writing this post was actually my first introduction to Kastcheï the Immortal/Deathless. Andrew Lang included the story “The Death of Koshchei the Deathless” in his Red Fairy Book. It’s a fabulous, fascinating tale! I was by turns reminded of “Bluebeard” (with gender roles reversed) and “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” (also with gender roles reversed), yet the story has its own unique flair. You can read it here.

Have any of you seen The Firebird ballet? What do you think of ballet as a vehicle for reinterpreting fairy tales? Join Enchanted Conversation and let us know!

References: (“The Firebird, the Horse of Power, and the Princess Vasilia”) (“Tsarevitch Ivan, the Firebird, and the Gray Wolf”) (“The Death of Koshchei the Deathless”)

Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.

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