A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to see a performance by the Oklahoma Festival Ballet. I’ve been a ballet dancer since the age of three, so this was very exciting for me, since this is the first time I’ve been able to see them perform. Ballet may seem to have little relevance to a blog about “global engagement,” but one of the things I really love about the dance community (and ballet in particular) is how its history reaches across borders. Ballet companies often contain dancers from many different countries and perform works choreographed by artists from all over the world.
At this particular performance, the Oklahoma Festival Ballet performed a piece called The Firebird, which is based on a traditional Russian folk tale. Despite ballet’s immense popularity in Russia and the number of choreographers that come from that country, there are surprisingly few classical ballets based on stories that are Russian in origin. So I thought I would share a little bit about the story of The Firebird and the history behind the ballet.
Once upon a time, a young tsarevich named Ivan was hunting in the woods when he discovered a large garden surrounded by a stone wall and snuck inside. Little did he know that he had strayed into the domain of an evil wizard named Koschei. As Ivan was exploring, he discovered a beautiful red bird and captured it. This was a magical creature call the firebird. She spoke to him and begged for her life, granting him an enchanted feather that he could use to summon her in exchange for her freedom. He released her and continued through the garden until he came across thirteen princesses who were being held there by Koschei against their will. After dancing with them a while, Ivan falls in love with one of the princesses and vows to confront the wizard. When he comes face to face with Koschei and his minions, Ivan summons the firebird. She uses her magic to make the minions do a wild, energetic dance, then makes everyone but she and Ivan fall asleep. The firebird then shows Ivan to a tree stump where Koschei has hidden an egg that contains the secret to his powers. Ivan breaks the egg, thus defeating the evil wizard and setting the princesses free.
The ballet based on this folktale was originally choreographed by Michel Fokine in 1910 for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, a company known for its cutting edge innovations in the world of dance. (Fun fact: a section of the first floor exhibition of the Bizzell was dedicated to the Ballet Russes for a while.) The score was composed by Igor Stravinsky and is known as his breakthrough work as a ballet composer. The Firebird’s instant success paved the way for Stravinsky and Diaghilev to collaborate on other important works such as Rite of Spring.