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#Throwback Thursday: The Firebird

Today's #ThrowbackThursday is The Firebird, the ballet made so famous by Maria Tallchief's enormous success in the leading role.

The ballet tells the story of Prince Ivan. While hunting in the woods, Ivan stumbles into the magic realm of an evil magician, Kostchei. Kostchei is an immortal who preserves his life by keeping his soul locked in a magic egg and hidden in a casket.

Kostchei the Deathless, the Royal Ballet

Ivan spots the Firebird, a cross between a bird and a woman. He captures her, but the Firebird, desperate to be set free, offers him a deal. She gives him one of her feathers, and tells him it will bring him aid in a time of need.

The Firebird and Prince Ivan, the Royal Ballet

After the Firebird disappears, Ivan wanders through the enchanted garden until he comes to the gate of an old castle. He meets thirteen princesses, all of whom are under Kostchei's spell. Ivan falls in love with one of them, Tsarevna; she warns him that the castle belongs to Kostchei, who captures and enchants any passing travellers.

The Firebird, the Royal Ballet

When dawn arrives, Tsarevna and the other princesses are forced to return to the castle. Ignoring her warnings, Ivan follows her. As he reaches the gate, a bell rings, summoning the strange monsters who are Kostchei's slaves. Kostchei himself follows them, and Ivan confronts him. Aware that he faces impossible odds, Ivan uses the feather to summon the Firebird.

The Firebird in the finale, the Royal Ballet

She bewitches Kostchei and his minions, who perform a fiery, energetic dance before falling into a deep sleep. The Firebird then directs Ivan to a tree stump, where he finds the magic egg containing the magician's soul and smashes it. Kostchei dies, and the princesses are freed.

The Firebird and Prince Ivan, Mariinsky Ballet

Ivan and Tsarevna are then married, and the whole ballet culminates in a celebration of victory over Kostchei.

Prince Ivan and the Firebird, the Royal Ballet

Igor Stravinsky wrote the music for The Firebird for the 1910 season of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Mikhail Fokine, then resident choreographer, did the original choreography, and wrote the libretto with Alexandre Benois. The story is based on two unrelated Russian fairytales, one of the Firebird and one of Kostchei the Deathless.

Tamara Karsavina and Michel Fokine in the 1910 premiere, Ballets Russes

This ballet was the first of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes productions to have an original score. It premiered in Paris on 25 June 1910, and was an immediate success. Tamara Karsavina, who createded the role of the Firebird, later recalled that every performance met 'a crescendo of success.' The original cast included Karsavina as the Firebird; Fokine himself as Prince Ivan; Alexey Bulgakov as Kostchei; and Vera Fokina, Fokine's wife, as Tsarevna.

Alexandra Danilova in costume as the Firebird, Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo

It was Stravinsky's breakthrough; the critics heaped praise on the young composer, and he entered into a partnership with Diaghilev's company that resulted in several famous works, including: Petrushka, The Rite of Spring, and Pulcinella.

Maria Tallchief in costume as the Firebird, New York City Ballet

Many companies have since done revivals of the ballet. Perhaps the most famous is George Balanchine's staging in 1949 for the New York City Ballet, starring Maria Tallchief in what would become her signature role. Balanchine and Jerome Robbins later revived it in 1970 for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival, starring Gelsey Kirkland. Previously, the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo had often performed it, frequently starring Alexandra Danilova. It has also been staged by, among others, the Mariinsky Ballet, the Bolshoi Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, the Royal Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre.

Here's the full ballet, performed by the Bolshoi:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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