The Firebird: A taste of ashes

FirebirdOur country is at war with itself. The good of democracy having vanquished the evil of apartheid, we now lack the imagination to create a new society and so the phoenix of hope battles with the hyena of disaffection.

There’s a new manifestation every week, the latest being in Tshwane where disaffected ANC members rampaged through the capital city because the mayoral candidate who might have handed out sweet deals to loyal members of the pack had fallen to one who has a reputation for good governance. We’ve seen it in our institutions, as our phoenix, Thuli Madonsela, battles the pack of hyenas that are Jacob Zuma and his lackeys. We’ve seen it in our international relations, as our securocats ignore international law and let Omar al-Bashir slip out of the country, and we see it on our streets as tyres burn while tenders are signed over a greased palm.

It’s the fallism in our universities, it’s the ‘decolonisation’ in our literature festivals, it’s the struggle over transformation in our sports teams and, undoubtedly, it’ll be noted in the economic inequality in Grahamstown at this year’s National Arts Festival. It’s a battle on every front, in every sphere. Not because we hold opposing ideologies, but because we cannot yet envision what the new society we all wish for looks like, and so we fall back on the old model of destruction.

Janni Younge sees this, it underpins her directorial vision of The Firebird, adapted from the original ballet choreographed by Michel Fokine to Igor Stravinsky’s score.

With a century’s worth of hindsight, a century in which numerous revolutions large and small have shown us that the end of the war is merely the beginning of a new struggle, she seeks to move The Firebird into the realm of this new, deeper evolution, which is manifest in the personal and the political.

“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,” states Younge in her director’s note.

It’s a bold, and necessary iteration that reflects our expanding 21st Century consciousness, and the many layers of her reworking take the form of dance, puppetry, animation, and Stravinsky’s score. Unfortunately, her statement contains another truth: “It is not the first draft that works.”

The production we saw at Artscape on Friday night, ahead of The Firebird’s showing on the National Arts Festival Main programme, was a disparate collection of layers that created a work that was less than the sum of its parts.

This was despite almost all the parts being great in their own right. Stravinsky’s score is Stravinsky’s score (with additions by Daniel Eppel); the hand-drawn stop-frame animation by Michael Clarke was not only accomplished, it was refreshing to see a different style to the Kentridge we’ve become used to; the dancers were lithe and graceful and a joy to watch; and the puppets were breathtaking in their craftsmanship and attention to detail. Mannie Mannim’s lighting was beautiful, although I would have been interested to see more spot and less flood on occasion, and Birrie le Roux’s monochromatic simplicity in costuming was easy on the eye.

I say almost all because I found Jay Pather’s choreography inconsistent. It was spellbinding at times, wonderfully anachronistic at others – such as having a quartet’s toyi-toying destructiveness alongside a creative pas de deux between puppet and dancer, but there were also sections of movement I can only describe as twee. I suppose aspects of classical ballet may appear twee in today’s light, especially contrasted with the contemporary South African dance he seeks to include in his palette. Less successful was resolution of the specificity of the puppets with the fluidity of the dancers, leading to rather stilted, and stultifying sections. It seemed there as an effort to overcome the specificity of the puppets as objects through movement rather than use their material limitations to create a dance of specificity. Die poppe sal dans was never meant to be literal.

The Alchemist of Honesty, one of the main characters who is essentially a sangoma, was an irritating superficiality. I recall only one scene in which she actually interacts in movement with The Seeker as danced by JackieManyaapelo (there may have been other scenes – there was a lot to look at). The rest of the time she was pretty much consigned to standing to one side and shaking her stick and her beads at the action, a figure as token as placing a sangoma on stage to indicate this is an African adaptation.

Despite this, Pather is not to blame for the disappointment this production wrought, he created many sublime moments that would have bridged my qualms. Rather, it was the sense that The Firebird was premised on the audience being awed by the puppets. They are awesome, to be sure, as works of meticulous craftsmanship. They’d be fantastic in a gallery where we can walk up close and see the labour that has gone into their construction, how the joints work, wonder at the glint in the eye. But on stage, in this production, they often fail to shift beyond their obvious visual metaphor and so, lacking the imbuement of character or further meaning, become little more than spectacle. It is this sense of spectacle on which the entire work hinges. It appears the music, the dancing, the animation, the attempt at narrative, is all secondary; they exist for little more than to set the scene for Big Bird’s entrance.

And truth be told, that was a bit of an embarrassment. She plopped out of her egg and onto stage like an overgrown dragon larvae, a helpless mute appeal in her handsome eye as we proceed to ignore the diminished cast of dancers and watch most hands on deck get busy clicking carabiners into place and adjusting the sails so that, eventually and too late, she could rise up to her impressive height and spread her wings. Then in a last desperate plea that we do be impressed, she gives forth a spurt of fire – a small spurt, given her size.

All of which left me feeling somewhat appalled. We really didn’t need all of that, just for this. In this way, Younge does recreate present-day South Africa by providing a metaphor of the blood and trauma we’ve paid to achieve a spectacle of power in place of the substance of the Freedom Charter. Unfortunately, that was not her intention.

The Firebird has three shows at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown on 30 June and 1 July. Book here.

— Steve Kretzmann

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