The Firebird

10 10 2008

One of the first pas de deux that is between two characters who are not love interests; here the hunter struggles to catch the legendary animal. Choreography by Mikhail Fokine and music by Igor Stravisnsky. Danced by Diana Vishneva.



One response

10 10 2008

I think this performance, as lovely as it is, is a good example of how choreography becomes “smoothed” out in time, and how this alters meanings. Fokine was an anti-academician – the true revolutionary of 20th century ballet; Vishneva was trained in a system (Kirov – now back to Maryinsky) where academic values are strongly enforced. Her Firebird looks like a second cousin to Odette (of “Swan Lake”).

According to Tamara Karsavina (the original Firebird, in a part initially meant for Anna Pavlova), Fokine said to her, “You are a bird of prey; I want a mighty beat of wings, not graceful flutterings.” His vision was of a demon-creature that dominated the stage, of a pas de deux that turned on its head all the conventions of Petipa’s classical structure and steps – no variations for male and female partners and no coda, no obvious virtuosic steps, and a heavy emphasis on turned in positions as opposed to the classical turned-out position. “The Firebird” is an uncommon work of Fokine’s for its use of some classical partnering – the man supports the woman with hands on her waist and occasionally takes her hand to provide support, but the meaning of it is profoundly altered from Petipa traditionalism. Here, conventional support is stifling, an attempt by the Prince/hunter to control, manipulate, and trap the Firebird.

Nearly 100 years after the premiere of this ballet, we also no longer immediately see how Fokine “freed” the upper body and expanded its range of expressiveness. Prior to him, ballerinas danced with corseted waists, the better to hold the upper body stiffly up-right and keep the silhouette conventionally feminine, while the feet and legs performed virtuosic tricks. Fokine wanted the waist and upper body to twist, the arms to fly out: he wanted three-dimensional dancing using the entire body. Now everyone dances just about everything this way, so we aren’t shocked by it.

Karsavina also did not wear a tutu; the original costume (by Leon Bakst, I think) was a calf-length flowy skirt with a huge feathered headdress, everything very golden. The Firebird turned red and tutu-wearing in Diaghilev’s 1926 revival.

These changes and adaptations have, naturally, changed the meaning of the ballet. Where Fokine may have intended the Firebird to represent freedom and individuality – something dangerous and not of this world – Vishneva looks prettily dangerous (contrast both her movement and her facial expressions to the frantic and inhuman Fonteyn, who was coached by Karsavina), a sensual representative of unbridled nature meant to sexually awaken the Prince, who meets his would-be bride in the very next scene. Where Fokine may have intended a theatrical representation of the stamping out of authoritarianism (critic Lynn Garafola has hypothesized that “The Firebird” is at least partly about the 1905 Revolution), it now comes across as a rather silly story, another ballet tale of a prince with an otherworldly magical creature, human or not. We really can’t see how daring this ballet was, and it’s our loss. (The music is still very effective!)

P.S. To see a great example of the “smoothing” (and prettying-up) of Fokine’s choreography, compare Pavlova’s “Dying Swan”

to Lopatkina’s.

Pavlova was of course the original (choreographed for her in 1905); Lopatkina is a current prima ballerina at the Maryinsky.

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