Featured, The Firebird

The Firebird

firebird puppet and dancer

Presented by IMG Artists in association with Janni Younge Productions

A live performance to the original composition by Igor Stravinsky
Puppetry and dance performance designed and directed by Janni Younge of Handspring Puppet Company
Choreographed by Jay Pather


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This production of The Firebird, directed by Janni Younge and choreographed by Jay Pather, is a puppet and dance performance set to Stravinsky’s original score. Janni Younge’s Firebird draws on the symbolism and dramaturgy of Fokine’s original choreography (based on figures from Russian folklore) and reinterprets them in a contemporary South African setting, using larger-than-life puppets and African dance forms.


The Firebird began as a conversation between IMG Artists and Handspring Puppet Company in early 2013. The proposal from IMG was to create a puppet theatre production to be performed to live classical music in large summer concert venues throughout the US. As the idea took hold The Firebird was settled on partly for its powerfully rich and moving musical score and partly for its association with mythic content, a world that has profound resonances with that of puppetry.

Janni Younge Productions’ interpretation of The Firebird has emerged through a creative collaboration spanning the last two years. This process began with an extensive series of conversations between Janni Younge and Jay Pather. As notebooks filled with sketches, storyboards and plans, the concept began to take shape. The first performance workshop was held with the cast in May 2015; a week of exploration of the concept, of testing puppetry suggestions and finding a common language between the artists in the room. Both Janni and Jay work in association with their casts in the creation of the material on the floor, welcoming diverse voices, movement styles and nuanced puppetry detail.

As with the puppet performance and choreography, the puppet design process has drawn on the great skill of the artists in the team. Janni, Andy Jones and Jonah Delange worked together from the earliest concept for the puppets, through the construction of Maquettes and finally into full-scale giant puppets.

The collective creative process for The Firebird has called on each member of the team to go beyond previous experience. The massive challenge of this project could only be met through an extraordinary level of artistry and commitment.


Janni Younge Productions is enormously grateful to the extensive team of people involved in the production and creation of this show: IMG Artists for believing in it from before it was born; Jay Pather for nurturing and nourishing its evolution; Andy Jones and Jonah Delange for giving it wings; Daniel Eppel for creating the new sections of music and sound; Michael Clarke for painting many, many pictures; Mannie Mannim for painting with light and being the godfather; Birrie Le Roux for sensitive creations in fabric; the cast for giving every ounce of your energy and then some more; Pieter-Jan Kapp for getting things to hang out where they should; Robyn Sacks for getting things in order; Jzadir Belknap for keeping it all together and to Luke Younge for seeing the big picture keeping Janni in one piece.

Janni Younge Productions thanks Handspring Puppet Company for a great foundation of support without which The Firebird would not have been possible.

Performances will be seen at the Mann Centre (Philadelphia Orchestra), Wolf Trap (National Symphony Orchestra), Ravinia (Chicago Symphony Orchestra), Sun Valley Pavilion (Sun Valley Summer Symphony), Hollywood Bowl (Los Angeles Philharmonic), concluding at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (Philadelphia Orchestra).

firebird puppet and dancer


Original Ballet

In the original ballet Prince Ivan wanders into a magical garden owned by the evil magician Kostchei. There he chases and captures the Firebird. She pleads for her release and eventually he lets her go in exchange for a magical feather that will summon her back in time of need.

He wanders on and comes across 12 princesses playing with golden apples outside a castle. He falls in love with the most beautiful of them. The princesses return to the castle and warn him that everyone that has tried to rescue them from Kostchei has been turned to stone by his magic power.

He ignores their warning and opens the castle gates at daybreak. Kostchei’s demons come out and capture Prince Ivan. Kostchei himself appears and tortures him. The princesses plead for mercy but Kostchei will not listen. Prince Ivan summons the Firebird with the feather, she appears and overwhelms Kostchei and his demons, forcing them to dance until they collapse.

Prince Ivan then steals the egg that holds Kostchei’s soul, and breaks it open, releasing the Firebird and all the others from the enchantment that traps them. He marries the princess.


The fairytale roots of the original ballet permitted a reinterpretation of the story along simultaneous layers of the psychological and the societal. While the plot remains similar, the characters have metamorphosed to express a particular take on the story.

The Prince Ivan character becomes the Seeker, a young woman on an identity quest (performed by Jackie Manyaapelo). At her side is the embodiment of her ancestral and intuitive wisdom, the Alchemist of Honesty (played by Ntombi Gasa). The Firebird herself becomes a range of birdlike puppets and paper fragments and is danced by Shaun Oelf. The princesses become puppets of children. Kostchei (and his many demons) are represented by the snake, dog and beast and is danced by Nkanyiso Kunene. An entirely new character emerges as the resolution of the conflict between the Firebird and Kostchei, a unification of the opposing dynamics.

Parallel Levels

On the personal level, The Seeker is a young woman on a quest to liberate her internal power; on the societal level, she is the new nation seeking maturity and growth. Her journey encounters both hope, inspiration, creativity (the firebird) and fear, doubt, destruction (Kastchei and demons).

As she ventures into the uncertain territory of self-expression, she is at first uplifted and inspired. Her sense of potential and of a new life stir within her and she allows her passion to take flight. Surrounding her is a spirit of optimism about South Africa’s transformation.

However she soon encounters fear and doubt and her fragile sense of confidence seems to dissolve before her eyes. She awakens to the realities of inequality and profound national anger and suffering – her inspiration lost as the necessity of facing the depth of her being and the complexity of her context asserts itself.

Her courage swells the forces of creativity again and as these gain strength, so too do the forces of criticism and deconstruction. Her creativity distorts into accumulation and excess. The counter forces rise in parallel, perhaps too powerfully, leaving damage in their wake.

Finally the conflict between the forces reaches a crescendo, to the point where everything is broken down. The energy on both sides is spent and no victor walks free. Out of the resulting void a new power, an integrated and balanced power – the true Firebird – can arise.

firebird puppet and dancer

The Characters

The Seeker – Performed by Jackie Manyaapelo

The Seeker is the central figure who sets out on a journey to find her place in her world. This right of passage pulls her in different directions, as she is both inspired by her vision of perfection and angry at the injustices in her society. She is torn between the fragile sense of confidence and the doubt that eats away at her, pulling her ideas out of the sky and forcing her to look deeper. As she builds her sense of herself within her social context, she is confronted by her own ideas. She has to draw in new reserves to allow her true balanced power to emerge.

The Alchemist of Honesty – Performed by Ntombi Gasa

Holding a deep and quiet wisdom, old as the ancestors, she knows the importance of being aware and present to the opposing forces at play. She is The Seeker’s intuition, her guide. She helps her balance the creative and destructive impulses, bringing them together to birth a fully formed idea and support it with power and vision.

The Creative – Performed by Paper and Bird puppets and Sean Oelf

The Creative is the inspired impulse to generate; it is the idea taking flight. The ability to imagine and then hold a vision until the imagined becomes a reality. This is the passion that generates new life and new livelihoods. The Creative manifests images of wellbeing and visions of purity and joy. The Creative is possessive. As the Creative constructs it becomes attached to ideas, ignoring suffering and defending accumulated wealth and power. The Creative burns with inspiration, passion, delight and also greed.

The Innocents – Performed by The Children puppets

These are the fragile and half-formed ideas that emerge in the creative process. They are the playful and harmonious vision of integration and care. They are also an ideal, a simplification, and as such they and fragile. Only the more complete and fully formed idea is able to live in the face of the fire in the Seeker’s mind.

The Destructive – Performed by Sticks, Snakes and the Beast puppets and Nkanyiso Kunene

The Destructive is the mistrust that looks below the surface. This is the doubt that destabilises the creative idea and the status quo. The Destructive is the insight that pierces the veneer and shatters the surface layer letting the unacknowledged be seen. The Destructive pulls the Creative apart, forcing it to reconfigure. The Destructive is the anger that can tear down monuments and false idols but which can also burn and break the Innocents caught in its blaze. The Destructive burns through the surface, burns away excess, burns up everything in its path, creating a clearing from which the new can rise.

Director’s note

For this production of The Firebird, I have drawn on the symbolism and dramaturgy of Fokine’s original choreography, as well as the Russian folklore that rooted his ideas. I was struck from the start with how the mythic story elements of construction, on the one hand, and deconstruction, on the other, were playing themselves out in post-apartheid South Africa.

I was also enchanted by the metaphorical potential of the mythic forces as proxies for the internal forces of a human being on a path of growth toward wholeness, toward knowing ones’ place in the world.

Two things were important for me – firstly the dichotomy of good and evil that play so well in the Russian folk tales and that birth the grand characters of the ballet never reached a satisfactory conclusion for me. 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. As Jung says: “The greatest and most important problems of life… can never be solved, but only outgrown… in a new level of consciousness.”

This dynamic is reflected in South Africa, where the miracle of democracy is beginning to show its cracks and racial tensions we once imagined were gone forever have re-asserted themselves.

We as a society are waking up to the realisation that a nation is never ‘done’. As with ourselves, it is not the first draft that works but rather a many-layered reworking. Inevitably the creative and destructive come into conflict but from this conflict a newly powerful identity can arise. I am thrilled by 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.

The implications for the narrative of this approach were that the fairy-tale ending of Prince Ivan finding and marrying his Princess was not going to work. I needed a way to express both the cyclic nature of progress and the potential for new life to spring from the ashes. What emerged was this interpretation of the Firebird.

firebird puppet and dancer

Choreographer’s Note

Tell a story

When I was given the chance to bring together dance and puppetry to Stravinsky’s score the prospect seemed so seductive and, given my interdisciplinary bent, so clear and simple. In the doing, of course, one comes to terms with the fact that dance and puppetry are actually such polar opposites. Dance wriggles out of specific meanings, puppetry is built on specifics. Moreover, Stravinsky’s score, despite its complex, discursive, stream-of consciousness structure, is surprisingly narrative. So the choreography had to complement, match as well as depart from the narrative, specific nature of these components. Nonetheless, in the choreography, I wanted to work with the tangential quality of dance to provide fluidity — when meaning is created and then disappears in flux.

Tell our story

Janni Younge’s proposition that we used the central ideas of the Firebird as a metaphor for a South African story was compelling. The Firebird is essentially about the quest for regeneration and the original ballet makes clear demarcations between good and evil. This re-imagining of Firebird in South Africa had to provide other layers.

Through an extensive workshop process we probed the themes of promised land, the promise of a democracy, of equity and well being for all, and the innocence of that dream. Of course this dream shatters with the pressing realities of the unfinished business of material equity. The doubt and rising rage is, however, always accompanied by the firebird metaphor, a source of creativity, the ability to make and chart new ground. When both forces work in opposition to each other there is potential for great destruction and drawing the disparate ideas of rage and creation together suggests a regeneration that is not superficial.

A diverse layering of styles of dance then became very important. Classical African dances and ballet in the earlier parts of the work help us probe the naiveté of the original rainbow nation. Contemporary South African dance is by nature influenced heavily by classical African dance as it is by classical ballet so in the latter parts of the work, these classical forms are also quite present within the contemporary style. In wanting to create a palette of voices and styles of dance the choice of a range of dancers who contribute to the choreography, was crucial.

Just tell the stories

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 South Africa are achingly present. These bodies flung together and having to make sense of each other and with each other bring up challenge, resistance, resilience, fear, and hope. The intensities of the context under which the work is created asks us as artists to go beyond just being clever, to succumb to telling a story, our story, the stories.

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