The Firebird: A ‘riot of rich colour and fantastic movement’
100 years after its London premiere, we take a look at the origins of one of the great Russian ballets.
Michael Somes as Ivan Tsarevitch, Frederick Ashton as The Immortal Kostchei and Margot Fonteyn as The Firebird in the Sadler’s Wells Ballet production of The Firebird © The Roger Wood Photographic Collection/ROH Collections, 1956
The Firebird was the first completely original ballet that Sergei Diaghilev masterminded for Western audiences. It was created in 1910 – the year before Diaghilev’s company the Ballets Russes was formed – in response to the popularity of his Saisons Russes in Paris, Berlin and Brussels.
The Firebird took elements from several traditional Slavic stories and combined them in an original folk tale created for Western audiences increasingly fascinated by Russian art. Both the Firebird and the malevolent immortal Kastchey (whose name translates as ‘boney’, hence his skeleton costume) had featured in Russian stage productions before, but never together in one plot.
While conforming to existing dance traditions, The Firebird marked the beginning of new trends in ballet. The role of the eponymous Firebird – a bird of prey ‘ferocious and of great power’ – draws on strong academic ballet technique. Yet her pas de deux with the hero Ivan starts the ballet rather than occurring at the climax, as was traditional. While most ballets at the time ended with a lively celebratory dance, composer Igor Stravinsky persuaded the creative team to close the work with a stately coronation accompanied by a hymn of thanksgiving.
Mikhail Fokine’s choreography uses diverse styles of movement to represent various characters. A magical atmosphere is evoked from the opening, when the Firebird flies across the stage. Pointe-work is only used for the dances of the supernatural bird, to suggest flight and hovering. The thirteen captive princesses perform a circling folk-dance, known as a Khorovod, in soft shoes to folk-inspired music. Kastchey’s creatures are given suitably grotesque movements in the Infernal Dance. Fokine insisted that his hero Ivan (a role he performed himself at the ballet’s premiere) moved naturally. For example, at the start of the ballet, he really heaves himself over the wall into the garden.
The original designs were created by Alexandre Golovin, an experienced stage designer with the Private Opera in Moscow, who created an impressionistic forest: ‘a tapestry woven of green, gold, russet and silver threads’. The first production was not created with touring in mind: the heroine flew on wires and (just briefly) knights appeared on horseback. Needing a more manageable set, Diaghilev had the ballet redesigned by Natalia Goncharova in 1926. He requested scenery cloths that showed an orchard inspired by Andrea Mantegna’s frescos, and a Kremlin (walled city) of gilded onion-domed churches for the coronation. This provided a nostalgic reminder of Holy Russia, apparently pushed aside by the rise of the Soviet state.
Tamara Karsavina was not Diaghilev’s first choice to play the Firebird (he initially approached Anna Pavlova, but she had committed to a season performing in London). With her creation of the Firebird, however, Karsavina joined Diaghilev’s inner circle of friends and advisers. From the first season she shared the role with Lydia Lopokova who interpreted the role in a very different way: she was described as being more like a hummingbird than a bird of prey. In the 1920s Karsavina coached her successors and in 1954, when Serge Grigoriev and Lubov Tchernicheva mounted the ballet for The Royal Ballet (with Natalia Goncharova supervising her designs), Karsavina coached Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes.
The Firebird was the first of Stravinsky’s ballets to be performed in London. It was first presented in London at the Royal Opera House by the Ballets Russes on 18 June 1912, having been revised and revived the previous month in Paris for its first performances since its premiere season. The Firebird’s originality was praised as a ‘riot of rich colour and fantastic movement’ and even Stravinsky’s ‘extraordinary command of the bizarre’ was admired. As the Observer recorded: ‘[Stravinsky] has great imaginative power, a wonderful sense of the picturesque… while under the wealth of captivating and curious harmonies and rhythmical embellishments lies a strong and graceful line of independent and individual melody.’
The Firebird runs from 22 December 2012 – 11 January 2013 and will be staged in a Mixed Bill alongside Jerome Robbins’s In the Night and Rudolf Nureyev’s Raymonda Act III. All performances are sold out though returns may be available, as will a limited number of day seats.