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When Russian composer Anatoly Liadov turned down Diaghilev's commission for a new fairytale ballet, he inadvertently changed the course of ballet history. Having heard and liked a new symphonic piece in a concert, he searched out its composer and offered him the commission for The Firebird. That choice gave birth to the career of one of the greatest of all ballet composers, Igor Stravinsky, and, ultimately, led to the many successful collaborations between Balanchine and Stravinsky.
Stravinsky had been studying with the great Russian nationalist composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (composer of the famous Scheherazade, which also became a Diaghilev ballet). Rimsky-Korsakov had given the young man a brilliant grasp of colourful orchestration and a taste for Russian folksong, two skills which allowed him to create the masterpiece that is The Firebird.
The ballet premiered in 1910 during the Ballets Russes's second season in Paris. Diaghilev had a reputation for working with the best. His choreographers included Fokine, Nijinsky, Massine and Nijinska, and his designers, Bakst, Matisse, Picasso, Goncharova and Braque. The Firebird was no exception. Mikhail Fokine created the superb choreography and the designs were by Léon Bakst (revised in 1926 by Natalia Goncharova). The piece was a huge success and lead immediately to Diaghilev asking Stravinsky for the scores to Petrushka and The Rite of Spring amongst others.
The ballet features a huge cast. As well as Prince Ivan, his imprisoned love the beautiful Tsarevna, the Firebird herself and the evil Kostcheï there are 12 enchanted princesses, a huge company of Indians, Wives, Youths, Monsters, Attendants, Pages and Cavaliers, and over 30 extras who only come on stage as the guards and ladies for the stunning final celebration scene.
Based on a famous Russian folk legend, the story tells of Ivan Tsarevich, a Russian Prince and his search for his love, the beautiful Tsarevna, who has been imprisoned by the evil ogre Kostcheï. It is nighttime and he is in Kostcheï's garden, when he catches a glimpse of the Firebird. She flees, but giving chase, he captures her. In exchange for her freedom, she gives him one of her feathers. When he is in greatest need, he can use the feather to summon the Firebird to aid him.
Travelling further into the garden, he stumbles upon 12 captive princesses. They are playing games passing apples. When he approaches, they dance a khorovod, or slow round dance. Much like Stravinsky's music, Fokine's choreography is packed full of references to genuine Russian folk elements.
He enters the castle and confronts the ogre. He is questioned ferociously so pulls out the Firebird's feather. She leaps onto the stage and casts a spell over all Kostcheï's monsters, putting the powers of evil to sleep. Kostcheï's lifeforce is contained within a great egg; as the ogre recovers his senses, the Tsarevich smashes the egg and the stage is plunged into darkness.
The final tableau, one of the most famous in ballet, is resplendent with glorious costumes, a stunning backcloth representing St Petersburg and one of the most famous and stirring pieces of music Stravinsky ever wrote, once again based on a Russian folk melody. After the huge cast have made their stately entries, the curtain falls on one of the grandest sights in all ballet.
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