The latest reincarnation of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird, originally produced by Sergei Diaghilev and the Russian Ballet in 1910, recently took flight from Cape Town’s Artscape, en route to the main stage of the Grahamstown Arts Festival, after which it will tour the US.
The composition, Stravinsky’s first for ballet, was an adaptation of a Slavic folktale. It was a smash success and has been regularly reprised worldwide. Given the popularity of this work, its SA version becomes all the more intriguing.
Director Janni Younge and choreographer Jay Pather have not disappointed. While staying true to the story’s fantastical root, they have chosen to fuse this magic-reality with the harsh truth of a failing democracy.
Younge’s vision, however, is by no means a pessimistic one. It is the complexity of change as a dreaming tool which the director brings to the fore.
“In my experience internal struggles are solved not when one force overcomes another, but rather when the battle is exhausted and a new, deeper knowing arises,” says Younge. She notes that for the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, “the greatest and most important problems of life ... can never be solved, but only outgrown ... in a new level of consciousness.”
It is this deep structure of the unconscious, central to folk tales, which signals a departure for the creators of Firebird.
In a country ground down by brute truth, haunted by the spectre of race, mired in prescriptive and reductive ideologies and hobbled by inequality, it is all the more vital that we access the nurturing power of the unconscious, a realm irreducible to brute truth. Hence the power of folk and fairy tales — or, as the American child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim would put it — enchantment.
As he said: “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue.”
It is this key realisation that drives Firebird. As a celebration of youth and innocence, Younge’s production places the power of the child’s imagination at the core of her dance-drama. Its central figure, a naive, child-like young woman called “the seeker”, is on a quest — the pursuit of what Younge calls “a complete child”.
One recognises this sentiment — this conception of the child as a “giant” — from Ingrid Jonker’s poem Die Kind which Nelson Mandela famously included in his inaugural speech. It is this very spirit which is sustained in this SA production of Firebird.
Younge, however, is no utopian. She recognises “the cyclic nature of progress and the potential for new life to spring from the ashes.”
It is the incendiary yet healing nature of the Firebird which is the work’s abiding metaphor, a creature that is both a blessing and doom to its captor.
And here lies the sting: If the Firebird is a kind of Phoenix, it is also a variant of Icarus. These are, after all, turbulent and uncertain times which the director and choreographer have taken to heart. Pather captures this unsettling moment: “When the toyi-toyi, a dance of protest and a derivative of Southern African dance, is juxtaposed with a classical pas de deux between a puppet and a dancer, the complexities of contemporary SA are achingly present.”
Firebird’s artistry lies in its dissonant amalgam of discrepant drives and aesthetics. A mash-up of dance styles, a mixed-media extravaganza, Firebird does not guide the audience so much as immerse and plunge it into a wretched, torn, yet nurturing realm.
The production in effect scrambles received perception, forcing a surreal concatenation of intuitively grasped sensations and meanings.
Firebird is no Brechtian work replete with its intended outcome, but, in the vein of Rimbaud disciple Jim Morrison, “a long prolonged derangement of the senses in order to obtain the unknown”, or in Younge’s case, the not quite knowable.
The strength of the production lies in its trust in the imagination above all else.
As Bettelheim notes: “For those who immerse themselves in what the fairy tale has to communicate, it becomes a deep, quiet pool which at first seems to reflect only our own image, but behind it we soon discover the inner turmoils of our soul — its depths, and ways to gain peace within ourselves and with the world, which is the reward of our struggles.”
Such is the reward of this peculiarly South African production of Firebird. With its signature Kentridge-inspired animation by Michael Clark, and the work of the equally archetypal new generation of Handspring Puppeteers, Jonah de Lange and Andy Jones, Firebird has the makings of another fine export. That it could prove so without deflecting from “the complexities of contemporary SA” is, however, the more remarkable.
And here credit should also go to the leading figure Jackie Manyaapelo, whose discordant, puppet-like movements, verging on a dirge-like autism, prove the vortex of a work which, like the nation whose story she enacts, lives with the terrible unease of never having begun.