Mixed reactions to ambitious production of The Firebird

24 Aug 2016 Mixed reactions to ambitious production of The Firebird

The Firebird. Director Janni Younge, choreographer Jay Pather, repetiteur Fiona du Plooy. Music by Igor Stravinsky. Presented by Janni Younge Productions, IMG Artist International and commissioning partners. By DEBBIE HATHWAY

It’s rather daunting to review a production that on the surface is a runaway success, yet in reality appears to fall short of the hype surrounding the Cape Town premiere of Janni Younge’s The Firebird on 24 June 2016. But, does it really?

Standing ovation followed standing ovation once the production moved from the Artscape Opera to Grahamstown’s National Arts Festival, the precursor to a much-anticipated US tour where performances will be accompanied by the Philadelphia Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sun Valley Summer Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

One has to wonder what inspires such a rousing response to a production that many theatre patrons felt didn’t warrant it. Was it the dancing, the animation, the puppetry, the props, the music, the story? Interestingly, some audience members were moved to tears by director Janni Younge’s proposal for Jay Pather to re-imagine a South African version of the centuries-old tale about the “quest for regeneration” and the battle between good and evil. Sandy Meltz is one theatre-goer who got it. “I felt patriotic. I felt South African. I cried, and I’m usually quite unemotional,” she said.

Younge’s intention to take The Firebird to a more satisfactory conclusion than Fokine’s original prince-meets-princess fairy-tale ending led her to explore the “imaginative potential of the firebird-as-phoenix, a new and more encompassing force of life, rising from the ashes of our previous oppositional energies.” She quotes Jung in her programme note, who said. ‘The greatest and most important problems of life… can never be solved, but only outgrown… in a new level of consciousness.”

Purposefully bringing together dancers from different backgrounds and presenting styles that by their very nature would “bring up challenge, resistance, resilience, fear, and hope”, Pather’s choreography developed as a probe of such themes as “promised land” and “democracy” and the reality of the “unfinished business of material equity”. The most outstanding dance performances were produced by a trio of classical African dancers as well as Sean Oelf in his role as The Creative, the personification of “the inspired impulse to generate”.

Michael Clarke’s drawings, animated and projected onto what reminded me of a vintage hot-air balloon, were absolutely fascinating. “Kentridgey,” as audience member Sandra Meltz described them – black charcoal strokes, in this instance interspersed with splashes of colour – so good that I had to tear my eyes away from the “screen” to focus on the action on stage, which mostly wasn’t captivating enough to hold my attention.

The comedian, WC Fields, is credited with offering the advice to never work with children or animals. I think the same goes for puppets, especially when they’re as expertly crafted as those commissioned from the renowned Handspring Puppet Company (who worked in the War Horse puppet studio). Created as visual metaphors for the emotional content of the piece, they get full marks for that – innocence represented by children with enormous, soulful eyes; aggression clearly visible in the snake and dog-like creatures (scary enough to make little ones climb onto adult laps), and inspiration and passion depicted by birds (the original firebird).

Kudos go to the puppeteers for getting to the point where audience members could forget about their dancing and focus purely on their charges – that’s no mean feat for a dancer, for it requires them to move without making the puppet an extension of their own body. Their movements must be independent of each another.

The highlight of the production is undoubtedly watching the paper “globe” morph into the final puppet – a dragon-like bird-and-beast combination made of sticks, paper and vellum. These were the materials chosen to represent the destructive power (the original Kastchei), creative forces and the innocents (the original princesses), respectively. The performers must work together to animate the dragon, which was distracting at times – their efforts a little too obvious – but executed with a calm, steady approach even when it looked like the wings appeared to be stuck together. The grand reveal? Unforgettable.