On a warm June evening in 1910 Paris, ballet history was made. Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes premiered The Firebird, with music by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by Michel Fokine, sets by Alexander Golovin, and costumes by Golovin and Léon Bakst. From that day to this, The Firebird has been synonymous with ornate spectacle. When choreographer James Kudelka created his Firebird for the 21st century, he and designer Santo Loquasto paid homage to the grandeur and glory of Diaghilev's vision, by matching the opulence of the original production with lavish sets and costumes of their own. In fact, so sumptuous is the Kudelka/Loquasto Firebird, that it took the resources of three companies - Houston Ballet, Kudelka's National Ballet of Canada, and American Ballet Theatre - to pay the $600,000 price tag. Says Houston Ballet Soloist Britain Werkheiser: "The sets and costumes are so extravagant and outrageous, that The Firebird can only be described as one wild and crazy show."
Among ballet's fairytale classics, The Firebird is probably the least familiar to the public, but the one that has the potential for the most family appeal. Ballet already has a ready audience in young girls, but young boys will find much in The Firebird to delight them - not to mention their parents.
The evil demon, Kastchei The Deathless, rules over the Kingdom of the Thrice-Nine. He is immortal because he has hidden his Death where no one can find it. Into his kingdom wanders Prince Ivan, who captures a magic Firebird. When Ivan sets the Firebird free because he is moved by her tears of sorrow, the bird gives him a magic feather to summon her in time of danger. When Ivan falls in love with the spellbound Princess Vasileva, and is captured by Kastchei, he pulls out the feather, just as the demon is about to turn him to stone. The Firebird arrives in time to put Kasthchei and his monsters to sleep, release his Death, and free all the enchanted princesses and their petrified swains.
Kudelka and Tony Award-winner Loquasto set their ballet amid the magnificent splendor of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization, with hints of Aztec and Inca thrown in for good measure. A gigantic staircase represents the imposing pyramids of those ancient cultures, with a high catwalk enclosed by a rainforest canopy. "Santo wanted to place the ballet outside of our everyday experience to make it seem more other-worldly," says the National's wardrobe supervisor, Marjory Fielding. "Making his extraordinary designs stretched our imaginations and called on all the costuming skills we've accumulated over the years."
The New York Times said Kudelka's production "turns to Mayan art for the inspiration that fills it with color, pageantry, fantastic masks and jungle creatures."
Loquasto's designs may be richly imaginative, but having to dance in weird and wonderful costumes is another matter entirely. Houston Ballet Principal Mireille Hassenboehler and the National's Greta Hodgkinson both danced the Firebird. Their unusual tutu was in the oval shape of a bird, higher and heavier in the back to emulate the tail. "That tutu was its own beast," says Hassenboehler. "When you moved, it didn't move with you, and Prince Ivan had to figure very carefully where to put his hands to hold you in the pas de deux." And Hodgkinson adds: "Santo didn't want the usual ballerina tights, so the Firebird's fishnet stockings took awhile to get used to because they feel slippery and ropey inside the point shoe."
Werkheiser was Princess Vasileva when The Firebird premiered in Houston. She and her fellow princesses were in tightly corseted bodices, pantaloons covered with panniered skirts, all topped with elaborate, conical hats festooned with many long, dangling mini-braids. "Between the corset and the bustle, it was hard to get your leg up into an arabesque," she says. Werkheiser also describes how the stretchy fabric would get caught on the scenery, and how the braids would whip the dancers in the face as they turned.
Without doubt, one of the most complicated and striking costumes belongs to Kastchei, replete with a huge, spiky headdress with attached dreadlocks, a body suit with an tight overskirt, a built on skeleton, not to mention gloves with clawed fingers, all in which the dancer is expected to do a back flip. "Once you were in that costume," reports the National's Rex Harrington, "you were immobilized, and if a slight adjustment had to be made before you went on stage, you needed a dresser, because your own hands were useless". The elaborate Kabuki-style make-up that Loquasto devised was another of Kastchei's concerns. Says Houston Ballet Soloist Nick Leschke: "Even with a make-up artist to help me, it took at least 45 minutes to put on Kastchei's face, but the time-consuming labor was worth it when kids were frightened of me when they came backstage after a performance."
The Firebird returns to Houston on May 26 through June 5, 2005. Paula Citron is a Toronto-based arts journalist and broadcaster.