by OBT Historian Linda Besant

The original Firebird premiered in 1910 for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris. For nearly twenty years, from 1909 to 1929, Diaghilev’s company of primarily Russian-trained dancers performed radical new ballets that gave equal expression to all the arts involved.

Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes were among the greatest fruits of an extraordinary era. Historian Nina Lederman described “a great diaspora of intellectuals” to Paris in the early 1900s. A “generous portion of the world’s great artists” swirled through, and Diaghilev showered them with opportunities to collaborate in creating exciting dance, productions called ballets that actually had more in common with what we now term “modern dance.”

(For example, the original Firebird princesses danced in bare feet and Ivan walked naturally, not like a danseur noble; the Firebird herself did not use turnout, and Kachei’s monsters cavorted with grotesque jumps and squats.)

Firebird was among the first creations of the Ballets Russes. Michel Fokine was Diaghilev’s chosen choreographer during this period, but Stravinsky was Diaghilev’s second choice to compose Firebird. (First choice Liadov did not deliver in time.) Stravinsky was paid 100 rubles for the score, about the price of a Diet Coke in St. Petersburg these days.

Stravinsky and Fokine worked closely together on the ballet, weaving together elements from several Russian folk tales into a story with old symbols but a new outcome—total liberation from evil. Fokine described their process, improvising and refining toward the finished score and choreography:

“Stravinsky visited me with his first sketches and basic ideas, he played them for me, I demonstrated the scenes to him . . . When Ivan appears at the garden wall . . .
Stravinsky played, and I interpreted the role . . . substituting the piano for the wall.
I climbed over it, jumped down from it, and crawled, fear-struck, looking around my living room . . . Stravinsky, watching, accompanied me with patches of the melodies . . .
playing mysterious tremolos as background.”

For his part, in the autobiography Chronicles of My Life, Stravinsky wrote how his musical ideas “worked themselves loose” by improvisation at the piano. He likened improvising composers to a restless animals—“they feel the desire to seek for something.”

Of his choreography for Firebird, Fokine wrote,

“I completely excluded the stereotyped hand pantomime and ballet gesticulations for the development of the plot on the stage and expressed the story with actions and dance.”

Monsters crawled and rolled rather than advancing in symmetrical lines; the Firebird twisted and fluttered to escape from Ivan. (Fokine said her “arms would now open up like wings, now hug the torso and head, in complete contradiction of all ballet arm positions.”)

Firebird was told non-stop—not once did the story pause for displays of virtuoso dancing.

Tamara Karsavina danced the first Firebird. Anna Pavlova was slated for the role, but found the music incomprehensible and refused to dance it. The great Vaslav Nijinsky wanted to premiere the Firebird role en pointe, but Diaghilev did not permit it. Fokine himself was the first Ivan.

Critic John Martin wrote that the original Firebird “ . . . was a magical work in its day, unlike anything we had ever seen.”

The Ballets Russes premiered Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring in almost yearly succession between 1910 and 1913, all composed by Stravinsky. As Lederman wrote,

“They established the one-act ballet as an important new form in music theater. Stravinsky… is the age … a force of utmost immediacy that has pierced our ears, extended their range, re-formed our appetites.”

Oregon Ballet Theatre is pleased to have generated its own Firebird and The Rite of Spring with acclaimed choreographers Yuri Possokhov and Christopher Stowell. With the commission of Nicolo Fonte to create a new Petrouchka for OBT’s 2011-12 season, the company will complete an historic trilogy.

Notes:

Stravinsky in the Theatre, Ed. Nina Lederman. Pellegrini and Cudahy, 1949.
Lecture: Stravinsky’s Firebird, Joni Steshko. Portland State University, 2003.
Fokine: memoirs of a ballet master, Michel Fokine. Trans. Vitale Fokine. 1969
Stravinsky, Frank Onnen. Continental Books Company, Stockholm, 1958.
Dance Classics: A Viewers Guide to the Best-Loved Ballets and Modern Dances, Nancy
Reynolds and Susan Reimer-Torn, a capella books, 1991.
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, Boris Kochno. Harper and Row, 1970.

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